Film

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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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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