I’m assuming that everybody knows that calling this series of discussions the I Hate Robert Altman Film Festival is a joke. I don’t hate Robert Altman.
Altman’s one of my favorite directors.
He’s one of my favorite American artists.
I don’t know how I’d have felt about the man. Probably what George Segal, the star of tonight’s feature, California Split, felt when he was working with Altman.
Our relationship was warm, mutually respectful, and a little distant. I wasn’t in his rhythms…I guess I was more middle-class than he would have liked. Different sensibilities. He was living a seventies lifestyle and I was little bit behind in that area. He’s Kansas City and living by the seat of your pants and making this totally innovative movie, M*A*S*H, changing the rules, and I’m a rule player. Elliott [Gould, Segal’s co-star on California Split] was also an antirules guy and a freewheeling guy…I brought an innocence, and he didn’t have time for that. Risk was not a part of my persona and it was part of his.
That distance Segal felt, Altman used it in the movie. He made the movie about it. I think Segal’s wrong about Altman not having time for that innocence. Maybe he didn’t off the set. It’s in the movie. It’s in every close-up of Segal and I’m not going to swear to this but I think there are more close-ups of George Segal in California Split than there are of any other actor in any of Altman’s other great movies from the 1970s, which is to say, the movies he made in his prime.
Altman’s movies were about people in groups, as members of societies. He worked mainly in long shots and medium shots because he wanted to fit as many people into every shot as clowns want to fit in a circus car. The difference is that the clowns want you to see them one at a time as the climb out of the car. If Altman had been a ringmaster he’d have had the car made entirely of glass and not let the clowns out so the audience could see them all crammed in there together and trying to get along or get away. Every contorted face and body is interesting and important because of the pressures put on the person they belong to by the owners of the other faces and bodies rubbing up against them and for the pressures they put on them.
M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs Miller, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, A Wedding are all about people crammed into small spaces and forced to get along. The 4077th, the Astrodome, a haphazard collection of buildings hemmed in by wilderness that hardly deserves to be called a town, the tents and performance space of a travelling Wild West show, a single house. In Nashville, Nashville is a small, company town and in The Long Goodbye Los Angeles might as well be a single street and a short strip of beachfront for all the room the characters have to escape each other’s company and problems.
In California Split the cramped and closed in space is the mental and spiritual one of shared addiction. The addiction isn’t to gambling. It’s to expectation.
All the characters, except Segal’s Bill Denny, but including the call girls, Barbara and Susan (Ann Prentice and Gwen Welles), who do not literally gamble, do what they do, take the risks they take with their money, their happiness, their jobs, their lives, for the joyful feeling of being on the edge of something wonderful.
That’s why Segal gets his close-ups. Close-ups are isolating and Bill is isolated within the community of hope addicts.
Bill’s the literal gambling addict. At least, he’s the one who knows what he’s doing when he gambling. He’s past hope. His addiction has lost whatever thrill it used to give him. At the point we meet him gambling has cut him off from everything meaningful in his life, from the small, crowded communities he is supposed to be part of, his family, his office. He is alone, a cramped, closed society of one, and he hates the company. Even sitting shoulder to shoulder with the people he’s playing poker with, he’s all by himself. He latches onto Charlie [Gould] because Charlie is involved. Charlie lives on risk and hope, like all the other gamblers. But for him gambling is social. He can’t do it without conversation. Bill flinches from the people close to him. Charlie reaches out to them. He has to bump, nudge, nuzzle, rub up against all around him. He loves the company. The attention of other people make him happy, even when the attention comes in the form of a beating or a stick-up.
Not that he’s a good guy, necessarily. In many ways, he’s a supreme asshole. He’s as addicted to expectation as the others, but he doesn’t expect happiness as much as he expects excitement, and so he gambles with other people’s emotions. He rubs shoulders in order to rub people the wrong way. He wants them to get angry with him because anger makes people unpredictable. It makes them reckless. It makes them interesting.
It makes them fun.
Bill wants to be like Charlie. He wants to be having fun. He wants to have friends. He wants to feel like part of the crowd. He wants to think that what he’s doing at the poker table, at the track, at the casino is something nicer, happier, better than gambling.
The good feelings and good times only come in bursts, and in Charlie’s company, and even with Charlie there Bill can’t always sustain the mood, or the illusion of the mood. He falls back in on himself. He shuts himself off and up, and that’s how the camera often finds him.
Charlie is able to enjoy his life because he is corrupt and dishonest. It isn’t right to call him a rule breaker or an antirules guy because he doesn’t seem to know that there are rules (not counting the rules of the games he plays and bets on) or why there are or need to be rules.
Bill, however, is a rules player. He even has rules by which he conducts his gambling. And he’s an innocent. At any rate, he remembers what it was like to be innocent. Bill is stuck in the middle of two opposing desires, although both would allow him to join in a society and shake his loneliness. Either way, he would belong again. He could give in, give up, and become like Charlie, and at least enjoy his self-destruction. Or he could give up gambling and go home. He can’t make up his mind, so he sits and broods and hates himself for both both impulses.
Altman caught that.
Once an actress asked Altman how she would know when the camera was on her in a crowd scene so that she would know when to do her acting. Altman told her to do her acting when she felt the moment was right, the camera would find her.
One of the many risks Altman ran when he made a movie was that the camera wouldn’t find an actress or an actor at a crucial moment, that it would get there too late or at the wrong angle. And that probably happened many times. But those times didn’t matter because of all the other times when Altman had the camera right there.
He trusted that there would lots of those times because he made sure that there was always something for the camera to catch. If one character in a shot wasn’t doing something worth paying a lot of attention to, not just one other but several others were. He chose his actors to make sure of this. And he kept track.
His eyes and ears were open in a way more disciplined, more exacting, more rules playing directors aren’t. They pay attention to their plans. Altman paid attention to what was happening and paid so close attention that he could see what was about to happen because of it. He could get the camera there a beat ahead.
He saw and he heard George Segal. And he made his movie about what he saw and and heard.
Ok, we’re ready. Let’s get this discussion underway. Comment and refresh as needed.
Where should we start?
How about with this. The 70s sure were ugly, weren’t they?
11:30 PM. Time for me to call it a night. Graveyard shift’s coming on to keep the comment thread open. Please feel free to help yourself to the coffee and donuts which have been generously provided by the folks at Sue’s House of Pastry. All we ask is that you bus your own tables on your way out.
Don’t forget. Next week. Thieves Like Us.