A GOOD film director is like a good maitre d' --he knows how to circulate. He's a smoothie, gliding from table to table and quieting things just by being there, soothing with a style that says, "I'm not intruding, but I know everything anyway--this is my place."
Robert Altman ushers an audience along like this: in the poker palace at the beginning of California Split you get a sense that a thousand things are happening at once but that you're in on every one, invisible and knowing.
It has to do with modulation. Altman likes to use microphones so that conversations overlap, swirling in and around each other fast enough that you don't follow any of them but you're getting them all. What you're catching is the way the energy of a room works, the way little events loom and subside. At a poker table you perceive the unconscious underside of the whole group, the cumulative impression that the individuals playing the cards and making the cracks don't see.
So you're in the middle of a scene but somehow away from it, floating in the smoke above. It's like a child up in bed when his parents are having a party--the rise and swell of the voices and cocktail clinks downstairs lapping up and down like the sea. The kid knows more than they do. The reviewer who said they thought that the stoned members of the audience found California Split too fast to follow was dead wrong. It's movie to swim in.
IN FACT you have to swim, because an upright analytical approach to this graceful and observant film will leave you cold and bored. It's not, as some have charged, that Altman has nothing to say. He's got plenty, but he wouldn't be able to write it down. Here he shows us the mood of gambling culture in California (which is not just the gamblers) without bothering us with a moral. There's a music in the way gamblers talk with each other and, more telling, the way they talk to themselves. When a singing voice finally enters the picture halfway through, the gritty Vegas croon fits perfectly because Altman had the rhythm already primed.
But substance is hard to find--if the kid upstairs was listening to one particular drunken conversation down there he'd be asleep in no time: it's just the chorus that keeps him wide-eyed. So when George Segal can't stand up to scrutiny because it's cliched, or when Eliot Gould's gambler is shallow, it's no reflection on the excellent performances or the overall intelligence of the film.
Segal has to escape from the office to go to the track and when the horses are running his very soul is clenched. He's desperate. While Gould follows the action ("I gotta be near the action," he says, and he means any kind), Segal follows the "feeling" ("I had it! I had it!"). It's Dostoyevsky's kind of gambling: you gamble because you're trying to win back an unknown something you lost a long time ago. Segal lives thinking the odds are stacked against him. He's separated from his wife, he's in debt to a man named Spark (played by scriptwriter Joseph Walsh). So he's betting for survival--if he can control chance just for a minute, maybe he can get a grip on his life. When he finally wins he doesn't even want the spoils. A classic kind of gambler, which Segal and Altman do credit to, but it's nothing new.
Also, the part is undermined. It's hard to see gambling fever as a killer disease in a sick society when Gould's caricature is at work. He's riding on a great big California high, living in a house where there's no sense of time, where breakfast is Froot Loops and beer, where people "crash" when their "action" cycle runs out, where an aging hooker named Barbara gropes around looking for "The Guide." They're all too exhilirated by the California high to be sordid, and Gould's love of gambling for its own sake undercuts Segal's tortured loser. With these two side by side the film can't have any point of view about gambling--it just shows how it works.
Which is why comparisons to The Sting or to the "camaraderie" movies about male companionship are ill-drawn. Altman may be trying to recover from the disaster of Thieves Like Us (his advertising got pulled) by making a sure-fire picture that will fund his "own" movie in Nashville, but with a few exceptions California Split is not a cheap turn-on picture. It's just a muted, funny movie that is very close to American life, and to call it empty would be like calling life empty--a moot point.