I Love You Men
by MOLLY LAMBERT
Robert Altman liked to make genre movies. It probably kept him interested. I always pictured a notebook with boxes he could check off. Western? Check. Biopic? Check. Sci-Fi? Check. Film noir? Check. Some of his experiments are total failures or outright bores. But the ones that work are all the more interesting for occupying a specific genre and then ripping it up from the inside.
California Split fan art by Molly Lambert (courtesy of the Estate Of Molly Lambert)
California Split is a few things. It's about gambling and addiction, it's kind of a road movie, but first and foremost it is a buddy comedy. Buddy films, which have been mostly referred to as "bromances" of late, are almost always about men. Men loving each other in a deep but non-sexual way.
A buddy film, according to The Complete Film Dictionary, is "a film that features the friendship of two males as the major relationship." Ira Konigsberg, author of the dictionary, further defines the genre: "Such films extol the virtues of male comradeship and relegate male-female relationships to a subsidiary position. Male relationships have always been a significant element in our popular culture, from the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper to television beer commercials."
Bromances, and their military cousin the war movie, are about the romance of camaraderie. The best relationships are about camaraderie. Perhaps that is why the love stories in bromances often unfold more realistically than in romantic comedies, where the friendship between two people in love is rarely depicted well.
Women also enjoy bromances for the same reasons straight men like lesbian porn. The term in Japanese is "Yaoi" and mainly applies to comic books. It could just as easily apply to Brokeback Mountain, where Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger made good on the sexual tension between Rock Hudson and James Dean in Giant.
In recent years the bromance has gotten, not gayer, but at least significantly more openly conscious of how gay it is. It is only a matter of time until Harold Does Kumar. In fact Lynn Shelton's new comedy Humpday supposedly tackles the topic head on, with two straight best friends making a pact to record an amateur gay porn video together as a dare. I'm sure there's Cheech/Chong and Wayne/Garth slash somewhere.
In 1948 American literary critic Leslie Fiedler wrote a famous essay called "Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!" Fiedler argued that the major recurrent theme in American literature was an unspoken or implied homoerotic relationship between men, famously using Huckleberry Finn and Jim as examples. Pairs of men flee for wilderness rather than remain in the civilizing and domesticated world of women. To look at Pineapple Express, you'd think nothing had changed in fifty years.
I'm not telling you much about California Split. One of the reasons I love Altman's work is how he allows for so many digressions from the main narrative. It often seems like he barely gives a fuck about the storyline, being much more interested in the characters and settings and background noise. The point is, I also like to digress.
To sum it up, Elliott Gould is beyond charming as the charismatic Jew teaming up with George Segal as the uptight cream-colored cable-knit turtleneck wearing Jew. There is gambling and there are hookers but mostly there is talking. An endless stream of back and forth banter between two drunk gamblers on a winning streak, often buried under the sounds of the horse racing track or the casino.
It's up there with my other favorite bromance My Dinner With Andre, for movies I can watch an indefinite number of times. There's something very comforting about watching two people act who are obviously very comfortable with each other. It mimics the feelings of an actual friendship. You know the person well enough to anticipate their vocal tics and arguing methods. Of course women have friendships like these too. There just still aren't nearly as many movies about it yet.
Robert Altman interview with Reverse Shot
Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording