The most poignant scene in Robert Altman's latest film, California Split, does not occur in the casinos frequented by its two lead characters, a pair of compulsive gamblers. Nor does it happen at the racetrack or boxing ring or other betting locales the two visit. It has nothing to do with the relationship between the two characters, Bill and Charlie (played by George Segal and Elliott Gould), nor with their dealings with the couple of prostitutes Charlie lives with.
It takes place in the early morning hours, just after the two are beaten up and robbed by a group of thugs, led by a man who suspected Charlie and Bill of cheating him earlier that evening. Punched in the face, chopped in the ribs, kicked in the groin, the two manage to limp back to the house where Charlie and the whores live. While the two bandage themselves in the bathroom, one of the women appears from the kitchen dressed in a robe and carrying a box of cereal. "Well," she asks in a tone polite but indifferent, "would you like some breakfast? Let's see, about all we have is..."--she peers at the cover of the cereal box--"Fruit Loops." She lets out a yawn. "Sit down and eat some Fruit Loops." And we watch as Bill, so banged up he is barely able to move, his eyes heavy with beer and exhaustion, sits down with a spoon in his hand and begins to eat his Fruit Loops.
If the scene were shot anywhere else than in the U.S., Bill would have been offered muffins, or croissants, or perhaps some rice cakes or mulled oats. Only in this country would Fruit Loops, small crunchy spheres of fruit-flavored cereal packaged in bright cardboard cartons by Kellogg's, be the order of the day. Nor, of course, could the rest of the scene have occurred anywhere but in America. Nowhere else would there be an arena-sized hall filled with tables rented out to people who gather for the sole purpose of playing poker. Nowhere else would two men be able to fill their pockets in such an effortless way. Nowhere else would Bill and Charlie become friends so quickly, nor be assaulted with such a vengeance and lose their money as quickly as they had won it.
Here today, gone tomorrow is one of the themes that pervades California Split, and just as quickly as today's Fruit Loops may become tomorrow's Oval Oaties or Glazed Grainos, so Bill's job today as a magazine editor may be tomorrow's trip to the pawnshop, and so Charlie's extravagant spending today may be tomorrow's hustle for a meal. In this movie almost totally without plot or character development, the imminence of change, the ubiquity of contingency, predominate, and as with the wheel of fortune Charlie spins in a Reno casino at the end of the film, it is not a particular number at the end that is important, but the simple fact of its spinning.
Charlie and Bill stop at nothing in their lust for gambling, be it in cards or crap or horses or basketball, and most of us would look on them as freakish characters crazy enough to risk their savings on the roll of a die. But, after two hours of witnessing the frenetic, unmitigated pace of their lives, of their willingness to completely expose themselves to the fancy of fortune and the possibility of disaster, I felt a fascination much different from that usually associated with watching freaks like the fat lady at the circus. Instead, I felt the same amused involvement as Bill must have when he sat down to munch on his Fruit Loops. At the same time Charlie's and Bill's lives, with their penchant for putting everything on the line, are alien to my own rather prosaic existence, I felt a certain similarity of motivation with them, as if all of us are guided by a set of principles intrinsic to Americans.
* * *
Charlie and Bill are creatures of the present. We know nothing of their pasts and only the barest outlines of their futures. Bill is separated from his wife, but the details of the breakup remain unknown. He is the editor of a magazine, but the nature of the magazine and the work he does for it remain opaque. We see the women Charlie lives with, but how he came to do so, and what their relationship is, we are never told. As far as we can make out, Charlie has no profession, and all his time is spent gambling.
It's an interesting coincidence that of the people I've come into contact with in my travels, the one who is most like Bill and Charlie also ventured in and out of Reno to find his fortune. I was hitching to the West Coast and had made it as far as Colorado. Outside Rocky Mountain National Park I and two other hitchers were picked up by a husky dark-skinned man who said he wasn't sure but he thought he might be going to San Francisco, 1200 miles away. As we drove during the day and into the night, through western Colorado and Utah and into Nevada, I learned that Ed, our driver, had left Cleveland a couple of days earlier. He had tired of his work there, so he had placed all his belongings in the trunk of his 1963 Chevrolet and was heading west. As the sun rose we pulled into Reno, where Ed wanted to stop for a while to check out the possibilities of getting a job as a croupier in one of the casinos. He went into a gas station rest room, changed from his wrinkled shirt and stained Levis into a nice fresh outfit, and while I wandered through the downtown streets, he went into two or three places to talk with the managers. About an hour later, as we had arranged, we met back at the car, where he had already changed back into his driving clothes. "Yeah, I could get a job here if I wanted," he said. "Just have to go through a little training period. But I think I'll move on." So with that we piled back into the Chevrolet and set off for San Francisco. "I think there'll be some good jobs in 'Frisco," he said as we drove into the desert sun.
When hitchhiking, or any time I meet up with strangers, I encounter a recurring mentality. Like the fellow whose life was packed away in the back of a car on its way from Cleveland to San Francisco, many Americans view their present situation as a transition from one job to the next, from one city to another. Ask a person the simple question of where he's from and you discover that it's not so simple. "Well, if you mean where I grew up, it was Florida, but I left there years ago and haven't been back," goes a typical response. "I spent a good deal of time in New York, but right now I'm working in Kansas City. I really can't say I'm from anywhere."
While the individual American, like any other person, remains tied, at bottom, to the place of his childhood, he realizes, as in the Thomas Wolfe title, that "you can't go home again." Americans leave home to pursue their fortunes elsewhere, in strange locations and foreign surroundings. And as soon as they are installed in the new situation they feel alien and misplaced, as though torn from some childhood Eden. So they move on, settling elsewhere in a vain effort to resurrect the shade of the trees on their childhood street and the sun-bright dust on the local ball field.
And so travel becomes the American's defining experience and mobility his distinctive characteristic, and the nation's endless system of roads becomes the intricate network through which some elusive goal, some beckoning fortune is pursued. The highway is a slender thread between a worn past and an alluring future. And after a while, after enough stops along the way, the endpoints of past and future, of Detroit and New Orleans and Seattle and Baltimore, fade away, and the unfolding of the road itself becomes the important event. And so, perhaps it is only while traveling, in a state of flux and transition, that the American finds his identity, a fleeting identity which is all present and which dissolves as soon as it is constructed. We reach our destination and the present begins to recede into a new past.
This is what was so fascinating about California Split. As Altman himself has described the movie, it is "an atmospheric film about gambling. It has no story, no plot, but it does have a progression." It is the same progression as the unfolding highway. The movie's obtrusive sense of present, constructed from the fast win and fast loss, the tension of a big money poker game, the green felt of a Reno crap table, a bowl of Fruit Loops for breakfast, flashes by with the same dreamy transcience as Colorado mountains, Utah salt flats, Nevada deserts, and California farms outside a car window.