Love Streams, John Cassavetes’ final film as an actor and penultimate film as director, is also one of his most unusual features. While his distinctive work can oftentimes be divisive, it’s easy to see how this film more than most others could be rather off-putting to those not appreciative of, or even accustomed to, his filmmaking technique.
Cassavetes adapted the film with Ted Allan, based on the latter’s play, and the film’s structure is one of the more vexing of its attributes. Dropped into two parallel lives, with little to no backstory, only gradually are we able to piece together certain details. First, there is Robert Harmon (a worn and weary Cassavetes, his failing health evident). Harmon is a writer, a drunk, and a womanizer, and he is supposedly working on a book about nightlife, though that seems to be a mere pretense for him to frequent clubs and pick up girls. And this he most certainly does. His house is abuzz with a bevy of young women coming and going at random, with no established relationship to Robert. It’s mentioned that his writing focuses on loneliness, and though he is perpetually surrounded by others, it quickly becomes clear that emotionally and spiritually he is indeed a solitary figure.
The other story in the film follows the bitter divorce and ensuing custody battle between Sarah (Gena Rowlands) and Jack Lawson (Seymour Cassel). She is mentally unbalanced, previously institutionalized, and apparently makes a living entertaining sick people, an occupation their young daughter, Debbie, cares little for. Sarah says she and Debbie are well liked because they are cheerful; Debbie says the sick people smell bad. Generally, Jack is the more fit parent, and he has a touching affection for the young girl, but it is Sarah who emerges the more tragic figure. She is a wreck, but she remains optimistic, arguing that love is a stream, it’s continuous, it doesn’t stop, and this keeps her going. When she travels to Europe with an inordinate amount of luggage, the symbolism of the baggage she carries with her is obvious.
It’s not apparent from the start, but Robert and Sarah are brother and sister, and their eventual reunion comes as they are both confronting individual lives in shambles. It’s no surprise that they are related, and when the association is made, the separate chaos begins to make sense. Their eccentricities, though differing, nevertheless mirror each other in terms of slow but steady paths toward self-destruction and self-imposed alienation. He is an irresponsible drunk who acts with heedless abandon, and with her, it’s never certain when and how she will act out; she assures Jack, “I’m almost not crazy now,” but she still fantasizes about killing he and Debbie. They lead unconventional lives, there’s no doubt about it, but the film seems primarily concerned with how well they’re doing it, are they, in fact, doing the best they can. “Actually,” Sarah says to Robert, fully prepared to accept it, “we’re both pretty screwed up.” This is where Cassavetes works better than almost anyone, honing narrowly in on people and their problems.
Save for some extraordinary lighting in the past (Minnie and Moskowitz), Cassavetes usually places little emphasis on technique, and though it contains a brief slow-motion car crash and a rather striking overhead traveling shot — both stylistic touches atypical for the director — Love Streams is a largely unadorned work, with even an occasional camera bump and mismatched cut here and there. It also seems in many ways to be exceptionally overblown, even in terms of Cassavetes’ usual penchant for unrestrained acting. There’s plenty of sincerity to the performances, as one would expect, particularly when he holds a shot and simply lets individuals talk and interact, without too much action to addle them. And there’s plenty of arguing and yelling, adding to that candid Cassavetes trademark. But with fits of hysterical laughter and characters falling over themselves, coupled with the film’s piecemeal narrative explication and the characters’ frequent recklessness, the generally admirable emotional rawness doesn’t always produce the requisite emotional resonance.
The new Criterion Collection release of Love Streams contains the expected bounty of special features (Criterion was, after all, responsible for the invaluable box set of Cassavetes’ greatest films). Along with the new digital restoration and commentary track by writer Michael Ventura, there is a video essay about Rowlands and interviews with executive producer and director of photography Al Ruban, actor Diahnne Abbott, and Cassel, as well as “I’m Almost Not Crazy . . .”—John Cassavetes: The Man and His Work (1984), a sixty-minute documentary on the making of Love Streams. The release also includes a booklet featuring an essay by critic Dennis Lim and a 1984 New York Times piece on the film by Cassavetes.
In Lim’s essay, he contends that, “More than a culmination of Cassavetes’s obsessions, Love Streams … is a palimpsest through which many of his other movies are visible,” and he goes on to cite astute similarities with such movies as Minnie and Moskowitz, Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Husbands, in other words, just about every film Cassavetes ever directed. While the comparisons are accurate, and it’s not an unusual tendency to search for allusions to past films in a great director’s final work (we’ll forget Big Trouble for a moment, just like Cassavetes tried to), this reminiscence is partly why Love Streams isn’t always as effective as it perhaps should be or as these other films are. To a large degree, we’ve seen these troubled individuals before, with their personality quirks and erratic behaviors (Robert spontaneously hauling his neglected eight-year-old son off to Vegas, Sarah bringing home a cab full of animals, including miniature horses), but there can be a time when too much is just too much and the whole thing doesn’t really ring true.
Cassavetes always excelled at creating deeply emotional connections to his everyday characters. They are people just like us, with our problems and our concerns, leading lives that are commonly ordinary yet nonetheless fascinating. His narratives, like Love Streams, which Lim states is, “less in a flow than as a series of small jolts, guided by the unruly impulses of characters who lurch and fumble their way from one emotional extreme to another,” are often delightfully madcap. Personal crises, familial drama, relationship trouble: this is Cassavetes’ bread and butter, and his intimate, improvisational form of filmmaking perfectly fits his rambunctious stories. So yes, Love Streams is like these other films in this regard, as Lim demonstrates, but Cassavetes set his own bar quite high, and similar to does not necessarily equal as good as.