ESSAY: All-In from California to the Mississippi – The Draw of Robert Altman
Every year there’s one movie I feel compelled to recommend others to check out. It’s usually an independent film that has an absorbing story delivered by great actors playing fascinating characters. It’s also usually a film that feels like ‘a find’ – the kind that, when you watch it, you want more people to see it and you can’t understand why more people don’t know about it. Last year, that movie for me was the gambling buddies movie, “Mississippi Grind” from the writer/director duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. It’s been compared to Robert Altman’s 1974 film, “California Split” and having only recently caught up with after watching a couple other 70s gems from Altman. I can see the comparison and I think both movies are great.
Both films found me pondering some questions about gambling (or “insert addiction here”) at the movies though – What is it about these down-on-their-luck characters that make them so engaging for audiences? Why is it viewers can’t look away while people fall flat on their faces due to their own bad decisions and/or compulsive behavior? The main characters in these movies are usually either comical and therefore endearing in some way or self-destructive and therefore tragic, yet there are times when both are combined to produce a movie viewers will find satisfying – but why? What is it about these desperate men who don’t know when to quit that we gravitate to?
I don’t think it has anything to do with gambling or how great it is to watch on the big (or little) screen. I think the draw is in seeing people take risks and watching the effects of winning and losing – whether or not it’s something we would do ourselves. It also has more to do with screenwriting that offers great characterization in a compelling storyline than it does a working knowledgeable of poker or craps. That aspect alone can make for a rewarding viewing experience, even if you know next to nothing about gambling – something I can attest to.
Granted, some people just aren’t into gambling movies and I can relate because that’s how I feel too – or at least that’s how I often think. I don’t know how to play poker and I never got into playing cards, but like a good sports movie, the best movies are about the players, not what they’re playing. It’s easy to get caught up in the drama of the story, when the characters are easily caught up in something they’re passionate about. One doesn’t have to be well-versed or in full knowledge of a certain subject – be it gambling or sports – to comprehend the emotions, the humor and the drama – that come from taking risks or going against the grain, while striving toward a goal (be it honorable or foolish).
The first thing I ever learned about gambling was from the instructive Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler”, but that’s just a song, not a movie where you actually see gamblers in action. I had come across gambling in various Westerns, but I think my first exposure to gambling buddies would be when I would watch George Roy Hill’s “The Sting” with my father. What I remember most about that 1973 movie was how cool and charismatic Paul Newman and Robert Redford were together (well, in any movie together) as con-artist gamblers. So, maybe coolness and charisma is a determining factor when considering the draw of gambling movies. You can have cool and charismatic characters in a gambling movie, but if you don’t have a fitting atmosphere it’s just not complete. The distinctive setting of Reno, Nevada stands out in Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature-length film, “Hard Eight” (itself inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Bob le Flambeur”), which focuses on a veteran-protégé relationship that’s developed between Phillip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly and how that dynamic changes as the protégé becomes successful. So, along with cool and charismatic characters, there are always two guys in the most memorable gambling movies (unless you’re watching the “Ocean’s” movies) with the women involved usually turning out to be kind-hearted and/or devious prostitutes or scorned exes.
In “Mississippi Grind”, Ben Mendelsohn plays Gerry, a 44 year-old busted loser out of Dubuque, Iowa, who’s squandered his life away in the pursuit of going ‘all-in’ when it comes to gambling. He’s lost his wife and daughter and is in deep with a loan shark (Alfre Woodard) he doesn’t want to mess with. But Gerry, who is miserable at his day gig as a real estate agent, just can’t quit and when he meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) one night at a poker table, he immediately feels like he’s met his lucky charm. The two hit it off, with the busted Gerry taking a liking to the brash and chatty Curtis, bonding even further over a dog race and more casino action. Gerry proposes a gambling road trip down the Mississippi that Curtis stakes for a buy-in on a big score in New Orleans. Curtis agrees and the two wind up getting to know each other even further during the inevitable highs and lows as well as a couple detours into some personal affairs, involving prostitute Simone (Sienna Miller) from Curtis’ past and Gerry’s ex-wife Dorothy (Robin Weight), which tests their partnership while revealing their own insecurities and issues.
Robert Altman’s “California Split” stars George Segal as magazine editor Bill Denny, a compulsive gambler who finds a kindred spirit in another gambler, motormouth Charlie Waters, played by Elliott Gould, at a busy poker hall. The two hit it off and become fast friends, winding up at Charlie’s pad, which he shares with two prostitutes, Barbara (Ann Prentiss) and Susan (Gwen Welles). Bill is more tightly-wound than the carefree Charlie and two form something of an unspoken, master/apprentice relationship, with Bill needing Charlie to balance himself out and boost his confidence, or luck. With impatient bookies and rival players after him, Bill makes a desperate run to Reno for a big game, with Charlie in tow, and despite some high stakes winnings, we soon see how empty and exhausting the addictive pull of going all-in or rolling that dice on everything.
The similarities between the two movies are obvious and fit quite well within the respective forte of their directors. Altman had an impressive body of work in the 70s, offering “MASH,” “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” “The Long Goodbye,” “Nashville” and “3 Women,” so it kind of made sense how “California Split” tends to get forgotten. But it still easily fits alongside those other masterworks. It may not have the ensemble dynamics or the psychological hold of his other titles, but “Split” is a solid focus on characterization, delivered by two impeccable performances from Segal and Gould. “Mississippi Grind” may only be the fourth feature film from the writing/directing duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, yet it is definitely in line with the focus on strong characterization found in their previous films (“Half Nelson”, “Sugar” and “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”) as well as the unexpected personal journeys the characters in their movies often face.
Both “Mississippi Grind” and “California Split” feature two characters that inhabit casinos, pool halls, riverboats and exclusive all-in games. Both films focus on compulsive gambling buddies – one more desperate than the other. They also both include impatient bookies, friendly hookers and baggage from the past. What they don’t include and are free of is the inclusion of a crime or gangster element that is often identifiable with the gambling genre. This actually makes them stand out – defying genre classifications, as Altman films usually do – delivering a more focused character study and also touching on the harsh realities of gambling. The big difference between the two films occurs in the third act for each, which finds “Mississippi Grind” ending on a decidedly different note, thankfully. This is further proof that Boden and Fleck are more interesting in homage than they are a remake.
In Robert Niemi’s book The Cinema of Robert Altman, he includes an observance from gambling psychology expert Mark Griffiths, who notes, “….many of these film representations tend to cast gambling in an innocuous light, and often portraying gamblers, largely male, as heroic figures. In reality, gambling is a devastating addiction. Summarizing Edmund Bergler’s (Austrian-born American psychoanalyst) psychodynamic account, Griffiths explains the underlying motivation: ‘Gambling is a rebellious act, an aggression against logic, intelligence, moderation and morality….’ According to Bergler, the unconscious desire to lose arises when gambling activates forbidden unconscious desires (e.g. parricidal feelings). The financial loss provides the punishment to maintain the gambler’s psychological equilibrium. According to this view, gambling is, in essence, masochistic.”
Indeed, such a view can be seen in the more devastated of each duo we follow in “Mississippi Grind” and “California Split”, portrayed so poignantly by Mendelsohn and Segal, respectively. In their performances, we see them treat their participation in gambling as something they ‘have to do’, something which gives them spurts of joy and accomplishment, but when they fall, they crash and are left feeling hollow and still. Altman captures this superbly in a scene after Segal’s Bill has an enormous win in Reno. Altman and cinematographer Paul Lohmann (who would work with Altman again on his masterpiece “Nashville”) place the camera in the casino’s main floor, looking on a brightly lit unattended bar where Segal is the sole patron. There’s no one else in the room. It’s just a sunlit Segal and all his winnings; in what would normally be a euphoric moment. Here we see just how empty and unfulfilling his compulsive behavior is. Mendelsohn’s rides Gerry’s highs in a more celebratory manner, but it’s as if he’s trying to prove to himself he’s someone he’s really not and his true colors surface when we watch as his ex-wife catches him going through her sock drawer looking for money. It’s pathetic and sad, but we’re embarrassed for the poor sap even if we know he’d probably do it again, thinking nothing of it – like a dog returning his own vomit.
It’s a good thing Gould and Reynolds are around to provide comic relief and it’s also a treat that their roles provide much more than just for the two actors. The more time we spend with them, the more we realize that the easy-going Charlie and Curtis aren’t as carefree as we initially think – which is good, since it adds more depth and relatability to their respective characters. At a racetrack, Gould’s Charlie goes out of his way to follow another gambler; one who had physically beat him up and took his winnings in an earlier scene, something Charlie does as well when he jumps his hot-headed competitor in the men’s room. The scene still has humor to it, but like Altman often does with his portrayals of violence, it’s sudden and unexpected. The revelation that Reynolds’ Curtis provides isn’t one of violence, but rather a gradual introspection that offers enlightenment as to how disenchanted he’s become toward Gerry’s endless gambling tour. He goes from Gerry’s good luck charm to his eventual voice of reason and we see how he realizes his stance is kind of hypocritical as well.
Although it comes after “MASH” and is often overshadowed by his films that follow, “California Split” nevertheless establishes many of Altman’s auteur tendencies, such as eschewing traditional plot for behavioral observances, overlapping dialogue and capturing the kind of relationships found in real life. “Mississippi Grind” feels different enough in and of itself, while admiring what directors like Altman and writer James Toback (who wrote Karel Reisz’s “The Gambler”, also from 1974 which starred James Caan) had previously done – ironically Toback has one scene at the end of “Grind”, playing a somewhat pivotal character in New Orleans. Boden and Fleck certainly tip their hat to their inspirations, while still doing their own thing and letting their two leads carry the movie.
These two movies offer more depth and authentic characterizations than viewers probably anticipate. It may not be a surprise to anyone familiar with Altman, since he often cared more about a gut reaction from the audience than one from the head. “I look at film as closer to painting or a piece of music,” he once explained. “It’s an impression of character and total atmosphere – an attempt to enlist an audience emotionally, not intellectually.” (2). Character and atmosphere can be found in “Mississippi Grind” as well, which doubles up as a musical travelogue, hitting up many distinctive spots on their Mississippi tour such as the bridges, diners and landmarks, while infectious folk and blues is played similar to that of a guided mixtape. Both movies include these deliberate sound and vision decisions which enhance the viewing experience, allowing the characters to the focus in a wholly realized environment.
Because of the many aspects the writers/directors of “Split” and “Grind” incorporate, the on-screen characters come across as real people – yet like so many of us, they’re not. They hold their cards close as an inherent defense mechanism due to past hurts, often hiding their true selves, which is another way we can relate to them. Like us, they’re often slaves to their own selfishness, self-loathing and addictions. Maybe that right there is why we tend to gravitate toward the desperate and compulsive characters in these gambling pictures. We can see where the addictive-compulsive side of ourselves would take us through the destructive behavior emulated by these characters – it’s what we can call entertainment that offers caution.