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1984: John Cassavetes' Farewell "Love Streams"

by Bill Curran

The story of an irredeemably chaotic, forever ailed pair of siblings—Robert (John Cassavetes), a louche, bestselling (but never working) author and alcoholic, and Sarah (Gena Rowlands), his troubled, manic sister just divorced and now separated from her daughter—Love Streams doesn’t care much for a Story, capital “S”.  There is no dissolution or sea change in Cassavetes’ swan song*. If one of the chief pleasures of any good narrative is the suggestion of lives lived before and after the story itself, it’s striking to note that, unlike previous Cassavetes works like Faces and A Woman Under the Influence (with their forever altering moments), Love Streams exists on a continuum. We know Robert and Sarah will never really change. And there is a poignant resignation in realizing at the film’s end, as a thunderstorm pounds the windowpanes of Robert’s home and Sarah’s new companion’s car, that we’ve witnessed only a beautiful stepping stone in their zigzagging roads to nowhere.

Instead, the film achieves a dreamlike intensity, moment to moment, by giving free reign to Robert and Sarah’s thoughts and associations...

This was a true first for Cassavetes. Here, there are true flights of fancy (Sarah’s murderous demolition daydream), wild ellipsis in action (Sarah’s trip to Europe, taking place in a single cut) and character traits and locations nudged, through bitingly comic exaggeration, just past the point of reality: Robert’s sprawling harem of women, Sarah’s impromptu home zoo invasion, and a black box, pseudo-drag night club Robert seems to frequent that could never exist in real life.

More importantly, Cassavetes respects Robert and Sarah’s peculiar logic by playing it relatively straight, even as he remains critical of their self-destructive decisions and actions. This respect plays out not only narratively, favoring a fleet, on-the-ready episodic quality to match Robert and Sarah’s impulsiveness, but visually. The hallmarks of Cassavetes’ style, with the sustained hand-held takes and the burrowed, gnawing-away quality to the acting, are still present and provide the nervy, observant perspective, but now coalesce with serpentine tracking shots, severe time lapses, a full-out operatic musical sequence, and other more left-field fantastic moments to suggest fully fleshed internal and exterior lives. 

Our empathy for these two wandering souls (Robert always moving away from his homestead but finding himself tethered; Sarah roaming aimless with her tether trailing loosely behind) is powered by these fictional conceits in the face of the behavior we witness. Brother and sister act so deranged at times, what else can bring us into their orbit but their dreams? The dreaming brings them down to earth. 

For its evocative, intense, and ultimately touching fidelity to its characters, Love Streams is perhaps the ultimate Cassavetes statement. In the wake of Cassavetes’ death from cirrhoses in 1989, it represented a full flowering of his art. Despite its seeming departure from the earlier films, praise was instant and, for a time, loud: at its world premiere at the 1984 Berlinale, it won the top prize, the Golden Bear, and major American reviewers at the time of its release were favorable to ecstatic, including Roger Ebert. Which makes zero sense in light of its non-existence, in a complete form**, on any home media format until its Blu-ray/DVD release from the Criterion Collection in 2014. It took thirty years before his masterpiece, as is, could be widely appreciated again. If you believe, like Sarah, that love is a stream, then perhaps we always knew it would come back to us, one way or another. 


* As one must always do when talking about Love Streams: technically speaking, Cassavetes’ last film is 1986’s studio comedy Big Trouble, but considering Cassavetes came onto the project just as it started shooting, as a for-hire gun for Columbia Pictures, and subsequently disowned it, nearly all critics and Cassavetes devotees consider Love Streams to be his final picture.

** For many years, it was only available in a studio chopped version which cut about 20 minutes of material from the 141 minute running time, and even this version was long out of print in the US on home video.

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Reader Comments (7)

I am not a fan of his work really nor Rowlands,great write up of the movie,it seems like a part of their life we are seeing,strange film.

August 17, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermark

Love Streams is really beautiful, but it's kind of the definition of a tough sit.
Your reaction to the play at the end of Opening Night should be a litmus test for whether you'll be into Love Streams or not.

August 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

This is my favorite film of all time, as I've said it here before.

It's LIFE presented in the most realistic possible way, in spite of its dreamlike quality. Life as a continuum, love as a stream, people always fleeting without direction, but trying to believe they're going somewhere.

In spite of all this erratic behavior of us, the humans, sometimes these streams collide and we connect. This is not about siblings, it's about life itself of the human beings.

Of course it reflects in a lack of structure, but his movie doesn't want to be a movie, it wats to capture people in a certain moment of their lives and abandon them.

I love this approach in all Cassavetes movies, but this one is special because its lack of structure doesn't make it cinematically chaotic. Cassavetes, for once, let us see people without any distraction.

And if we really look into this movie, its performances (both leads are SUBLIME, this should be Rowlands' Oscar number four out of five) and its characters, the experience is just transcendental.

I am really glad this movie exists, because I just can't measure its influence. Cassavetes and this movie specially opened a way to people from Arnaud Desplechin to Kenneth Lonergan to Jonathan Demme.

August 17, 2016 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I loved this movie. I found it enthralling.

August 17, 2016 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Do you really think it's a good idea to call a film like that a "masterpiece"? It might cause people to watch it.

August 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

You don't deserve John Cassavetes

August 18, 2016 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I'll take that as a compliment.

August 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

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