DVDs: Part 3

Gift guide

DVDs: Part 3

California Split

Columbia Tristar Home Video, $24.95

With Short Cuts, The Company, and 3 Women recently released on DVD, any Altman fans on your gift list could experience a winning streak this holiday, but the arrival of California Split marks the real jackpot. Personally, I'd rate it among his very best, up there with McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville, though because it's difficult to see, California Split remains a title seldom mentioned even in the company of Altman's second-tier. Notoriously absent from home video in any format until now, this George Segal/Elliot Gould buddy picture has only been available since its 1974 release on a ridiculous pan-and-scan bootleg apparently taped from a rare TV broadcast, so for the casual fan or the completist, this wide-screen DVD represents a long-hoped-for essential.

A story of friendship bound by the social glue of gambling addiction and set against a typically Altman backdrop of casinos and tracks in sprawling, vibrant Seventies loserdom, the film unfolds as a series of hilarious and painful set-pieces designed to showcase the stars, who include not only Gould and Segal, but just about every last extra on the set (making the wide-screen transfer a life-and-death matter for proper appreciation). On the amiably rambling commentary track, Altman, Gould, Segal, and screenwriter Joseph Walsh illuminate the dance between screenplay, improvisational performance, and milieu that yielded a closely observed chamber piece with enough America packed in to rival the epic hubbub of Nashville. Alive and contemporary as the shlubs in this season's Sideways, the joyously damaged duo on this melancholy "road to Reno" brilliantly shuck and jive around a national character that locates big wins and tidy divorces in the same place.

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