ReFramed No. 6: John Cassavetes' 'Love Streams'

Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh

In this week's installment, our cinematic revisionists revisit John Cassavetes last feature, the magnificent Love Streams.

Jordan Cronk: We've mentioned it a few times already in this series and compared it to one of the only films that seems to exist on a similar wavelength (California Split), but now we can dive into the glories of what in a spiritual sense is John Cassavetes final work, his magnificent 1984 feature, Love Streams. I recently had a chance to revisit the entire Cassavetes catalogue during a Los Angeles retrospective of his work, and seeing all these films in close proximity to each other, where I could weigh their respective charms and characteristics, only confirmed for me that this is his single best picture, the one that consolidates all his strengths and most lucidly translates his many themes as a storyteller. I don't know about you, but to me this is simultaneously his most watchable and rewarding work, which makes it an even greater crime that the film has never made its way to DVD.

Calum Marsh: I know we've expressed our frustration over the unavailability of certain great and important films on DVD before, but the fact that Love Streams -- which I agree is the best of John Cassavetes' many excellent films -- has never seen the light of day on home video in North America is outrageous in a singular way. We're not talking about some egregiously difficult or even especially abrasive arthouse experiment languishing in the perpetual obscurity; we're talking about a really resoundingly great film from one of the most important (and well-regarded) filmmakers ever. You can find almost all of his other films with relative ease, some of which are considerably more challenging or strange. Which isn't to say that Love Streams is totally accessible by Hollywood standards, but it's a rich, inviting work, full of beauty and vitality. I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that Love Streams is the kind of film which can effectively change you, or that it's emotional impact is...well, it's unforgettable. I really like a lot of Cassavetes films but I love this one.

Cronk: I think that passion has to stem from the generous and welcoming vibe of the film. It's true that compared to concurrent Hollywood entertainments of the time, Love Streams may not be very traditional -- it does after all retain all the freewheeling hallmarks of the improv-based Cassavetes style -- and it's long -- but when I think of suburban life in the '80s, away from the gaudy lights of the big city, the sprawl of Love Streams just feels right. It's comfortable and inviting despite uncovering an incisive underbelly at times, and film's main setting -- the real life home of Cassavetes and star Gena Rowlands at the time -- lends it the feel of a familial documentary of sorts. These are believable characters struggling with real problems in a sympathetic way and it's shot in such a manner that you end up feeling like you've lived with these characters for a period of time. Not unlike most of Cassavetes best work, sure, but here so natural and nonchalantly inspired it does, as you say, feel outrageous that more people don't know about the film.

Marsh: That's what happens when a film isn't readily available for consumption, its reputation diminishes and its place in the canon is compromised. People just forget. There's no other plausible reason why Love Streams lacks the reputation among cinephiles that his more widely available A Woman Under The Influence still retains.

But yes, the film has a very welcoming feel, if also an emotional sophistication which deepens it. I believe you mentioned this during our discussion of Altman's California Split, too, but there's this rather strange but potent dialectic between tragedy and comedy coursing through much of Cassavetes work that can be rather disarming if you're unprepared for it. Thom Andersen said of Cassavetes that "his comedies face up to tragedy and reject it", and I can hardly think of a more compelling definition of what makes Love Streams such a uniquely powerful drama. The narrative seems on paper like the stuff of tragedy -- or maybe even straight-up melodrama at times -- but the gravity of the drama is continually undermined by these unexpected surges of infectious warmth and humor. Which makes it a very unusual viewing experience, because you leave feeling both deeply moved but wholly entertained. It's as though Cassavetes accepts sadness as a given, and, reconciling himself to it, begins to dive heedlessly toward little moments of bliss. It's a beautiful sentiment.

Cronk: Indeed it is. As you said that I began to think of the scene toward the beginning of the film when the Casavetes character is chatting with his young son who he hasn't seen since he was born, only to casually drink a beer with him. The implications behind the reconciliation are serious as Cassavetes plays something of a playboy in the film, entertaining various women at all-night house parties (come to think of it, the outlying women even remind me a bit of the ladies in California Split as well) when he isn't drinking his way out of his writers block, but it's a funny, charming scene on a conversational level. Of course, Cassavetes did this throughout his career, but sometimes it could go a little overboard in one direction or the other (the extremes, in both content and arguably quality, being Husbands and Minnie and Moskowitz), but here the results are layered, multi-faceted, and eventually tragic. The final shot is one of the saddest yet most life-affirming finales of any film I can think of; just a glorious way to end such a relentless film.

Marsh: It's a sublime ending, yes, and one that I find a little hard to watch because it's just so emotionally exhausting. And as far as that scene with his estranged child, you're right that it's both immediately amusing but implicitly damning, and that ambiguity about what you're watching -- and how you're supposed to feel about what you're watching -- is one of the most interesting things about this film. The scene that stands out the most to me occurs much later, when the Gena Rowlands character -- who has just suffered a sort of nervous breakdown after her husband and daughter bluntly cut her out of their lives -- has this incredibly surreal dream about attempting to entertain her family. She bets her family that she can make them laugh in under a minute, and they just stare at her blankly while she hurries through this desperate and totally pathetic clown routine. It's hard to describe, but it's unlike everything else in the film, and the tone is sinister and dream-like in an almost Lynchian way. But for some reason it emerges, to me at least, as one of the most emotionally devastating sequences, ever.

Cronk: And following that is a series of further breakdowns and hallucinations and things of that nature, and at one point towards the end Cassavetes just breaks into this hilariously exhausted laughter. Seeing this in a theater with a large audience recently really demonstrated just how invested we become we these characters and the way Cassavetes seemingly laughs from his disbelief in his own plot development turns out to reveal a fascinating sympathy between viewer and actor/director. These moments seem like they can only arise out of truly inspired improvisation, of the sort which really only Altman and Cassavetes can lay claim to in the American cinema.

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