‘Love Streams’ Is a Masterful Swan Song From One of America’s Great Artists

The once widely unavailable Love Streams gets a thorough Criterion reissue, a well-deserved feat for John Cassavetes' final masterpiece.

In love I’m not sure of, I’m not sure of, I’m not sure of me.

In that I’m not sure of, not sure of you.

I’m not sure of love. Sure of love. I’m not sure of me, of you.

Near the end of John Cassavetes’ penultimate film, Love Streams, these lyrics are mysteriously and heartbreakingly sung by Gena Rowlands in a scene so stunning in its serenity that it’s hard to watch without being ravenous to know the direction in which he might have gone in subsequent films. This is especially the case given that this scene is such a stylistic anomaly in relation to the director’s other uncompromisingly naturalistic works. Unfortunately, he died five years after the release of Love Streams, which came and went without much fanfare as did most of his other films, underappreciated in their time outside of a coterie of journalists and cinephiles who were able to see the films during their scant theatrical releases. Widely unavailable in the decades that followed, Love Streams has been given the master treatment by Criterion, as they do here what they do best by restoring and reissuing a crucial work of art, availing it to the public in an attempt to create a fuller appreciation of cinema.

Cassavetes’ wife and muse Gena Rowlands gives another incomparably nuanced performance in one of her husband’s films, here as Sarah Lawson, an eccentric and potentially bipolar woman who feels love very deeply. So deeply, in fact, that she cannot process the buoyancy of its power or purity of its magnificence. She’s a wife (to Seymour Cassel) and mother, but her histrionic history has forced a breaking point for her family who mandates a break in the form of divorce and diminished parental custody. A peculiar manifestation of her love of people inspires Sarah to frequent hospitals to visit ailing neighbors, family members or strangers, a macabre act which obviously alienates her pre-teen daughter. To her, though, it’s a selfless deed that brings about joy and comfort.

Like a stream, the film runs, for the most part, in either one direction or the other, only converging near the end of an arduous but rewarding journey. Scenes of Sarah run alongside scenes of Cassavetes’s Robert Harmon, a successful writer holed up in a California spread (Cassavetes and Rowlands’s actual home in which many of their films were shot) with throngs of beautiful young women. Sitting around a kitchen table surrounded by vixens, he notes that “a beautiful woman has to offer a man her secrets.” He’s made a career by exploiting and writing about women, and this immersion technique is mostly just a convenient research method. He spends the film, like Sarah, running away from his demons, either through the unexpected overnight visit from a son whom he’s rarely, if ever, spent any time with, or an unending parade of frivolous encounters with the young women at his house. The latter trysts include Susan (a fantastic Diahnne Abbott) and a nightclub singer. Robert, is all pent up emotion and ID run amok, as he disallows connection as a method of protecting himself. He boozes and womanizes and flits from one superficial relationship to another, whereas Sarah tries, in her own flawed way, to make deep personal connections. In the end, neither approach brings much joy to either Robert or Sarah.

It feels as though life is conspiring to reunite the two, but their connection remains unclear even after she shows up on his doorstep with a cab full of European shopping in tow and he gleefully jumps into the car to embrace her. They are close, but are they exes? “She’s my best friend” he says at one point, but given his history with women it’s doubtful that their relationship is platonic. Their interactions are tender and familiar, and it’s revealed later, in passing, almost 90 minutes into the film, that they are siblings. Their bond is based on shared experience, the kind that is singular and hard to articulate.

Though they manifest their anxieties differently, it’s easy to see how they could have stemmed from the same point of origin. Both Sarah and Robert alienate the people around them; Robert knowingly pushes them away while Sarah does it subconsciously, though for similar effect. It’s revealed later in the film, in another sensationally surrealistic segment, that they may have had an abusive father, which creates a perfect linkage for their behavior and its similar effects.

Sarah experiences several hallucinations throughout the film, a narrative device that facilitates creative expression, as Cassavetes explores new stylistic territory through surrealism (he also worked in this realm in Opening Night). These sequences, such as the tragi-opera near the end, or an earlier scene in which she corners her family and tries with reckless abandon to make them laugh, can be understood as Sarah’s grandest hopes and most dreaded fears manifested into quasi-reality.

“Love is a stream: it’s continuous, it doesn’t stop,” Sarah says near the beginning of the film, establishing something of a hopeful philosophy for the prospects of the characters to follow. Both Sarah and Robert are perpetually swimming against the current, but you have a feeling they’ll arrive at their destination stronger on the other side.

Cassavetes adapted the work from a play of the same name which he directed for the stage. Jon Voight starred in the play and was scheduled to act opposite Rowlands in the film until he pulled out just two days before shooting. This is serendipitous for viewers, as it allowed them a last chance to see two of the medium’s greatest artists doing what they love with the ones they loved most. The resulting extra-textual addition to the story brings another bittersweet dimension that further layers the already complex characters. Cassavetes would go on to direct one other film, the Hollywood caper Big Trouble, but Love Streams is considered by many, including the director himself, to be the last Cassavetes film.

Criterion’s exquisite release comes with a bevy of insightful supplements, namely an hour-long documentary “I’m Almost Not Crazy…” John Cassavetes: The Man and His Work, filmed during the making of Love Streams. The documentary shows what life was like on the set of one of this unique master’s films, and most importantly allows the man behind the curtain the ability to speak about his own work in relation to commercial Hollywood fare, the battle between the two being something with which Cassavetes long struggled. “A movie tries to pacify people by keeping it going for them so that it’s sheer entertainment. Well I hate entertainment,” he says with characteristic candor, drawing something of a line in the sand between art and commerce. Also included is a fascinating video essay by Sheila O’Malley, “Watching Gena Rowlands,” and an essay from critic and Film Society of Lincoln Center director of programming Dennis Lim, all celebrating the swan song from a great American artist.

In a particularly poignant interview included on the disk, longtime Cassavetes cinematographer Al Ruban recalls a conversation he had with his friend and mentor two weeks before his death. “When I’m gone,” Cassavetes said, “and they want to do interviews about me, you gotta tell them: go see the pictures.” Now, with the long overdue release of Love Streams, see the picture we shall.

RATING 9 / 10