In my last piece, I discussed how Albert Brooks highlighted the changes in values from the counterculture generation to the mid-80’s through his film Lost in America (dir. Albert Brooks, 1985) and its references to Easy Rider (dir. Dennis Hopper, 1969). The start point of the counterculture and the end point of the Reagan Era 1980’s are both clearly defined in Brooks’s comedic opus. But, what about the 1970’s, the time period bridging together these two cultural eras? In order to understand how the transitional period between the counterculture and wonton societal greed was evident in the filmmaking of the time, it is imperative to look at the work of Robert Altman. Specifically, I want to take a closer look at California Split.
To give a plot synopsis of California Split (dir. Robert Altman, 1974) would be difficult, because there isn’t any traditional plot to speak of. Bill (George Segal) and Charlie (Elliot Gould) hit it off at a poker game where they become fast friends and start gambling together often before a culminating losing streak makes Bill evaluate himself. It’s a classic story of dudes being dudes with a side of bittersweet personal dissociation. This lack of any real structure is emblematic of what Altman is getting at with California Split, though. Having the film dally about with a lack of any clear goal allows the audience to feel the malaise of the characters. As California Split came out in 1974, it’s easy to interpret the character’s malaise as a representation of the malaise of the post-counterculture front of decade where the country was following the biggest challenge to societal norms and social constructs with the sharp return to conservative values under the Nixon administration.
And to combat this malaise, Bill and Charlie attempt to get an adrenaline rush out of their gambling habits. While not following any traditional narrative, California Split does present the arc of Bill as a gambler. In the midst of his own malaise, he falls in with Charlie and escalates his gambling to a new level after his association, and winnings, with his new friend evolve. He’s chasing after something to escape the disaffection and settles on a habit with the potential of immense financial gain. By the end of the film, the gambling has burned him out, and he has won so much that the disaffection comes on stronger because the spark is gone. The money he has reached a point where the amount means nothing anymore, and it doesn’t provide any happiness. It reeks of the prevalent disaffection among rampant financial gain that we would culturally reckon with throughout the 1980’s.
That’s how California Split ends up becoming both foreshadowing work and a portrait of its own era. Not because it’s trying to be anything more than a representation of anything other than that particular point in time, but because the point of time it is representing is one of transition. It’s a film that simultaneously remembers one era and shows the transforming ideals of the oncoming one. Because of that, California Split is an incredible representation of an American moment.
California Split is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.