In looking at John Cassavetes’s films a quarter-century after his death, a dilemma emerges. No, I don’t mean this in the silly, cliched sense that there’s a ‘problem’ (ugh- that word!) with the films, themselves. I simply mean that Cassavetes is still close enough to OUR time that he could provide a glimpse into the critic’s psyche, and the sort of trends most art-goers are utterly shackled by. This is because Cassavetes went from writing and directing 3 or 4 neglected masterpieces — often booed and hissed out of movie theaters — to being given the sort of love and adulation that is the inevitable due of most great artists. In this way, quite a few people in the industry probably feel stupid — that is, if they’re even remembered, now — and feel the need to make amends. And what better way to atone for such than to praise everything Cassavetes has done (as Ray Carney does), and push the director higher, higher: precisely where he belongs?
Except there’s just one problem. A reaction to one extreme with yet another is not exactly helpful, for — being a kind of mirror image of the same, original stupidity — it still disrespects the art, the artist, and the process which lets one become the other. (Cassavetes, after all, is gone. You had your chance, folks.) The fact is, for every masterpiece John Cassavetes had made, there was at least one mediocrity. Faces, Opening Night: classics, both of them. This just can’t be reasonably argued against. Husbands, too, is an interesting watch, with brilliant moments, albeit quite flawed. A Woman Under The Influence is similar in this regard. As for Minnie And Moskowitz? An oddity, to be generous, even if saved by 2 or 3 flat-out great scenes. Shadows, little more than a young man’s first, solid exercise. The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie — one of the greatest films ever made, by any director, in any time period or genre, and my own personal favorite, as well as my vote for cinema’s most ‘enigmatic’ creation. Then, there’s 1984’s Love Streams, another interesting movie with a handful of brilliant parts — the equal of anything else in the man’s output, really — nonetheless marred by lots of fluff, weak editing, and a too-prosaic end. Yet it’s Cassavetes’s final film, and, what’s more, feels like it, too: a fact that encourages film-lovers to love it, now, especially since they were unable to support Cassavetes at a time when he could have really used the help.
Love Streams opens with Robert Harmon (John Cassavetes) getting yelled at by his secretary — likely over some bit of bad behavior — and interviewing a number of young women, most likely for “a book about nightlife,” about what it means “to have a good time.” The girls are all quite nervous: a nice touch, for he’s already distant and unapproachable just a few minutes into the film, without it having to be explicitly written into the script. The scene cuts to a club, where Susan (Diahnne Abbott) is the singer, and whom Robert eventually approaches with more vague questions about “a woman’s secret”. Sarah Lawson (Gena Rowlands), Robert’s sister — unbeknownst to the viewer — appears in a room to discuss her divorce from Jack (Seymour Cassel), whose first interaction with her is via the eyes in a great, lingering shot that captures how conflicted he really is. There’s something clearly ‘off’ about her rambling, as she fixates on the word love, thus using it — as Cassavetes did, and so many critics who’d merely go on to ape him — as an explanation for her nutty behavior. It’s the first hint, really, of the film’s major flaw: that is, the disconnect between the richness and complexity that Cassavetes saw in these characters, and what is in fact on screen. Sarah, in short, does not merely act on love, but is more readily defined by her lapses of sanity, which, by being so reflexive, so particular to her, is not necessarily relevant to the viewer or to any deeper aspect of existence. In this way, it is a thing of its own world, rather than being extrapolated from the world into Cassavetes’s own — a fact that makes it impossible to TRULY engage with these characters, for they’re hermetically sealed in a narrative of Cassavetes’s, rather their own, making.
Robert meets Susan once more, gets drunk, follows her out of the club (“I like the way you move”), breaks into her car, spills alcohol on her dress, drives drunkenly to her apartment, then stumbles down the steps, cracking his forehead open. Now, re-read this, for Susan, amazingly, neither throws him out, nor calls the police — a suspension of disbelief straight out of Minnie And Moskowitz, which features similarly psychopathic behavior that the girl eventually ‘falls for’. Inside, Robert gets mended by Susan’s mother, and wakes up, just as amazingly, to Susan’s loving glances. It’s all well-acted, and even well-scripted, in parts, but while Cassavetes would chalk this up to the ‘surprises’ that people are capable of, it’s really just forced plotting, and downright silly much of the time. Later, Sarah’s daughter informs her that she wishes to stay with Jack, and Sarah — after being bullshitted some more by her psychiatrist re: “love” — takes a trip to France. In one of the film’s best scenes, she is stuck with too much luggage, and keeps running back to it, through the dark, as the camera lets her go as if she’s entering deeper and deeper into her own interiors, with no one on the outside quite able to help. (“You can understand me, if you want to,” she says to a French porter, thus defining what she — and Cassavetes — feels about human motivations.)
Meanwhile, Robert rejects the love-struck Susan at his door, as his former ‘interviewees’ have now turned into a personal harem that seems to go on for weeks. They soon disperse, however, for Robert gets a visit from his ex-wife and son, Albie (Jakob Shaw), whom he has not seen since the kid’s birth, and writes out a check to her as she says she needs to use the weekend to “make some money.” The kid’s nervous, sees the harem, and runs off, for he knows something’s ‘not right.’ Albie’s caught, sleeps off the day’s events, and in another supernal little scene, Robert directs him to ‘use his finger’ as a toothbrush before pouring him a beer, then giving him vague, rambling life advice. One can tell how little Robert can offer him — or to anyone, really — and how little, in turn, Robert cares, even taking the kid to Las Vegas. He locks him up in his hotel room (“Listen, I’m a man…and I find it very hard to sleep alone”), comes back the next morning, drunk, with lipstick all over him, then yells at the kid for being upset. He drives him back to Los Angeles, and Albie, shook from these events, runs away as soon as the car door is opened, splitting his head open — like Robert, earlier, in a ham-fisted ‘connection’ to his father — in rush to get inside. Robert comes to the door and gets beat up by his ex-wife’s new husband, as Albie, in an unbelievable about-face, runs out and tells him how much he loves him. Another suspension of disbelief, and one that, in the banality of its last 2 or 3 minutes — down to his ex-wife pleading that “he’s your son,” and Robert coldly rejecting this — almost ruins the entirety of this narrative arc. We are now at the halfway point of the film, yet have only spent a few REAL moments with Robert, altogether, due to the mistaken belief that not being allowed a true ‘glimpse’ into Robert’s interior equates to a good depiction of a closed-off character. Yet it is the depiction, itself, that follows from the glimpse, not the other way around.
Sarah decides to visit Robert after her trip, and this is the first time that we really see them alone. Robert turns on his jukebox in the dark, and in a beautifully-shot sequence, the two dance, as the viewer is still unsure of what their relationship is. Or rather, that is what the critics say — for Cassavetes has said it, too, both in and outside the film — and point to a lack of concrete words on the matter as ‘proof’ of this ambiguity. Yet Robert’s first interaction with Sarah is clearly platonic, is stressed as platonic by Robert, himself, to Albie, and they neither flirt nor fight, and when they do disagree, it’s always about the ‘big’ things, not invective against each other, as per sexual couplings. So the possibilities are whittled away awfully fast, and an astute viewer will realize what’s going on without the critics’ help on the matter, thus removing a much-touted layer from a film that’s simply more predictable than is usually thought.
As Sarah goes to a bowling alley, Robert visits Susan’s mother, asks her to dress up, and dances to one of Bo Harwood’s best compositions for Cassavetes, with a number of really wonderful lines (“I’m almost in love with you/ I nearly miss you/ I’ve hardly seen you/ When I do, I get a feeling that something should be there…”). It’s an odd scene, given Robert’s earlier rejection of Susan, the appearance of Susan’s jealous date, and the mother’s unexpected warmth at seeing him despite it all. Meanwhile, Sarah is dropped off by a guy who’s clearly become her date over the course of their evening, and, in one of her better exchanges in Love Streams, expresses a Joey-like (from Woody Allen’s Interiors) desire to find “something special” to do, something “creative,” given the lack of a real center in her life. She gets harassed by Jack via phone, Jack gets told off by Robert, and Sarah, in her plan to bring some affection into Robert’s life, visits an outdoor pet shop. Sarah’s relationship to Robert is ham-fistedly treated by the shop’s owner’s ‘interest’ in her phone call — thus too obviously recapitulating the alleged mysteriousness of their connection — but then, in a wonderful little touch, she decides to buy a dog despite the pain in the owner’s eyes, for Sarah is not cruel, merely oblivious to such things when she develops some fixation. Then, in one of the film’s best sequences, she brings Robert a couple of miniature horses (which she tries to unsuccessfully free), a goat, ducks, chicks, and other animals, dragging them through the house — and rambling, excitedly — as Robert looks on in shock. If one wasn’t sure that she’s “crazy as a bed-bug” (her phrase), it is obvious, now, thus giving a glimpse into the reasons for her divorce, not only due to her lunacy, but the potential selfishness — vis-a-vis the dog — with which she could act.
Given all this, Sarah has another collapse, and this time, she seems to lose her memory (“I don’t know who I am”) before it’s revealed to be a symbolic comment. This brings on two reveries from Sarah, which have been both treated as ‘dreams’ by critics, despite the fact that the first sequence is clearly a memory — even if a bit embellished — and NOT a dream. This is because, in a brilliant glimpse into Sarah’s psyche, she is shown to drag her family to their pool so she could ‘make them laugh’ with some cheap gags. The initial, clown-like noise is obviously recapitulative of her illness, not neutral, and Seymour Cassel’s face at the practical jokes is one of genuine hurt, as if he’s wishing for Sarah to get well, and knowing that she can’t be. Now, these are not cues that Sarah, herself, could ever read, but, alongside the black cuts spliced into this film, are here to cue to viewer, instead, which is an important difference that’s lost on many viewers, across many films. Eventually, as the timer that she sets winds down, she’s all out of jokes, and needs to do something drastic. So, she runs over to the pool’s diving board, backflips with her clothes on, and sinks to the bottom of the pool, unmoving, as Jack and her daughter go from pity to alarm. The next sequence — the famous ‘opera’ scene — clearly is a dream, however, as Sarah’s inner life is more deeply explored via discordant piano, and chaotic ballet as Jack taunts her before finally accepting her. She wakes up, and declares that she and her family have reconciled, to which Robert inquires: did it really happen, or did you dream it? And although she still insists on going back home to them, one could tell Robert’s comment forces a glimmer of recognition across her face, thus leaving the viewer with the hope that she might finally get her life together.
The film ends on a number of odd (to put it mildly) choices: having Robert’s new dog, Jim, appear as a half-clothed man as Robert maniacally laughs; turning Robert — who’s had no real defining experiences to this end — into a kind of family man, even willing to take on Sarah’s farm animals; having Sarah insist that she’s about to catch a plane back out of ‘love’ for her family, only to spend the night with a new boyfriend; and offering one of the slightest endings of ANY Cassavetes film, an ending that is both prosaic and dull, suggesting, as it does, so little of Robert’s life, and how weakly it comments on Love Streams in a deeper sense. And, despite the film’s supposedly ambiguous brother/sister relationship, there’s remarkably little on the screen to suggest why the two are even drawn to each other in the first place. They’re different in temperament, interests, and mode of being, and while some might point to their shared personal lacks, it is clear, even here, that Robert’s lacks are self-inflicted, and habitual, while Sarah’s are outside of her own control. Thus, the two mesh not even through their flaws, and Sarah, if she does in fact leave Robert, does so with no REAL impact on his life — merely a forced one, for the sake of a film’s plot, rather than depicting how real human beings might behave in these situations.
As noted, Love Streams’s flaws are many: from Robert’s odd casting as a kind of playboy, despite his age, drunkenness, and clown-like behavior, to the love motif, which feels tacked-on and mouthed by characters whose true concerns are quite elsewhere, to the many instances of completely unrealistic behavior, from ALL involved, to the ham-fisted, faux ‘ambiguity’ with which the film’s chief relationship is handled. Yet Love Streams opened to some mixed reviews from critics who — with a couple of exceptions — didn’t understand these flaws, preferring, instead, to hammer Cassavetes for his aesthetic and take cheap shots at earlier, greater films. Today, however, Love Streams is revered to the point of having a ‘clean’ 100% rating on RottenTomatoes, as well as the fluff, below:
As this book has argued, the genius of Cassavetes’ work is that the states of disruption and disorientation in the films are not merely attributed to the characters but are participated in by Cassavetes himself. Cassavetes’ cinematic style is as agitated and unsettled as the personal expressive styles of his major characters. He is not somewhere outside of the work, above the characters, coolly commenting….Cassavetes’ characters’ uncertainties are his own. He wrestles with many of the same confusions of feeling that they do. Like them, he explores possibilities and discovers things as he goes along. Like them, he has experiences by the bushel and learns from them step by step, day by day. If there were any lingering doubts about it, the production process of Love Streams stands as conclusive evidence that Cassavetes did indeed use film-making as a genuine process of exploration.
This quote comes from Ray Carney (The Films Of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, And The Movies), the foremost ‘expert’ on the director’s work. Note how, despite having the opportunity to reverse a string of negative judgments on Cassavetes’s film art, Carney plays the role of art-theorist, to the point of ignoring what’s actually on screen in favor of biographical sketches, or the director’s intentions. Yes, the 40 or so pages that Carney spends on Love Streams does feature analysis, but of the wan sort that spends pages and pages on Robert’s obvious loneliness, as if it’s some grand revelation, or Sarah’s issues, as if they really need to be explained to an intelligent reader. There’s no comment on the actors’ gestures and their meaning, or the peculiarities of this or that script decision; no explanation as to why a scene works or does not work; no glimpse, in short, into art itself, merely a tough slog through the contextual mud. And if this is what Carney offers as a ‘corrective’ to the bullshit, he’s doing little more but adding to such, for what Cassavetes really needs — a genuine appraisal, in both the good AND bad — is beyond him.
Contemporary ‘pop’ reviewers are also at a loss. But given that we’re dealing with John Cassavetes, who, in a reversal of fortune, must be respected, now, when it was once unfashionable to do so, they go on to review the film, anyway, oblivious to ‘frills’ like evidence and argumentation. Dennis Schwartz, for instance, posits the film’s “technical skill” and “brilliant insights into the human condition,” and — while true, at times — doesn’t really give examples, merely a plot summary alongside the standard, throwaway comments on ‘love’. Austin Trunick speaks of the greatness of the performances, but is also short on evidence: mystified, as he is, as the rest of ’em. Dennis Lim, writing for the Criterion DVD release, merely repeats the stuff that Cassavetes, himself, has said of the film (“I have a one-track mind; that’s all I’m interested in, is love”), lifts a few ‘insights’ from Carney’s book, then speaks gushingly of “a…[post-apocalyptic] perspective on its volatile characters that approaches serenity” — as if a genuine evaluation of the film’s ‘how’ matters not. Then, of course, there’s Paul Brenner, who declares that a film must “grab a viewer’s soul,” and… Ah, fuck it! I’m just tired of this shit! Let’s have Cassavetes, himself, speak of the film, and what — if anything — this talk reveals:
Robert Harmon, on the other hand, has intentionally tried to never have a center. He is a famous writer of bestselling books about lonely women — hookers, singers and the night life. But lonely desperation has become his life as well as his subject. He is in flight from the withering emptiness that is the basic truth of his life. Whether he is teaching his eight-year-old son, Albie, how to drink beer, wrecking the car of his latest crush, Susan, or getting a hilarious lesson from her mother on how to play the kazoo [in a scene cut from the final film], Robert Harmon enjoys only the emotional novelty of a new situation. As soon as there is the threat of continuity or commitment, Robert flees. Yet he doesn’t kid himself. A piercing self-knowledge is as much a part of Robert Harmon’s strength as his moody, alcoholic self-indulgence is his weakness. [From Carney’s Cassavetes On Cassavetes.]
Ok, this is pretty much in keeping with Love Streams, but even here, there’s a deeper reading of Robert Harmon than the film itself allows. Yes, he might be all of those things described, but given that there’s only a handful of stand-out scenes throughout, it’s a moot point, for all art is in the ‘how’ — and Cassavetes (at least here) is only interested in ‘what’:
He is a very conventional man. Such a conventional man that he makes a judgment and then lives with it even though he doesn’t want to live with it. He is a very organized person, even though it seems he’s not because he goes out and he gets drunk and whatever. But he’s a very organized person. He has a very rigid way of living. And one way that he lives is without any attention, affection, being poured on him. He has no concept of children, doesn’t know how to deal with somebody who loves him. He goes out with a bunch of dames and gets drunk and makes bargains with the boy as if he’s buying off one of his girls. I don’t think he’s cruel; he’s just ignorant. He’s the kind of man that doesn’t like people. But he has an affinity with having children around, with having people live in the house like a family, even though they’re rent-a-people.
Good descriptions — memorable, too. It’s the sort of discussion that makes sense for an off-the-cuff talk, as this was, and gives a glimpse into Cassavetes’s mind-set. But, again, not really into the art, itself.
Harmon is running from childhood and is trying to create another family without any of the prescribed values. He has been married several times, but when any of his wives has a child, he leaves. As I studied the script, I decided it was because he is the child.
And this is where Cassavetes starts to get into trouble. The conclusion he draws is interesting, but not necessarily the most cogent. There’s nothing really in the script to suggest he’s child-like, for while Harmon is certainly immature, that’s only one part of being a kid. A kid, remember, has no real means of dealing with the world, and childhood implies promise, some sort of change or growth. Robert implies nothing — he is static — and simply chooses to be an asshole from beginning to end. And while Cassavetes, himself, is quite fond, even protective, of the character, Robert is MUCH more easily explained away as a jackass than anything else. This is a classic example of critical overreach, and something that Cassavetes was too often guilty of. He then speaks of Sarah and the film’s purported dreamscapes:
Their union, after so long, causes an almost alchemical change not only in both their lives, but in the style of the film itself. Up to this point, we’ve seen both Robert and Sarah interacting only with supposedly ‘normal’ people. When their very different intensities start playing off each other, life, and the film, take on the quality of a dream. It is almost as though Sarah and Robert are dreaming of each other! Robert sees Sarah with a lover, causing complex reactions in himself — a classic brother-sister dream, but this is real life. Sarah sees Robert virtually run out of the house whenever she needs him — a classic rejection dream, but, again, this is real life. Sarah buys pets for Robert to love, since he has given up on humans. She reasons that pets would be a good place for him to start learning to love. But what pets! Two miniature horses, a goat, a duck, chickens and a pit-bull dog, all of which she stables in his Hollywood Hills home! In dream-like fashion, horses, goats, and chickens have the run of the house, and now both Sarah and Robert seem caught in the same dream from which they cannot awake because, in fact, it is their lives.
To call Love Streams a kind of ‘dream’ has become quite commonplace, and it’s mostly because of these sorts of comments from the director, himself. There are in fact only a few scenes that can be construed as dream-like: the slow-dance in front of Robert’s jukebox, the animals running through Robert’s home, and one of the film’s last scenes, wherein Robert laughs as Jim is inexplicably turned into a person. Yet this is true of many films, and most of these elements have far simpler explanations, many of which Cassavetes simply happened to dislike. No viewer would really make this deduction, anyway, without first having been prodded by Cassavetes. Most critics are monkey-see in this regard.
The character that I had chosen to play for myself was that I denied anything was wrong. But she said, “Look, I don’t care if it’s wrong. I’m gonna make it right.” It’s always been in women’s power to get what they want, but it goes down the drain when you’re obsessed with one thing — drink, drugs, even love — whatever it is. But Sarah’s character never gives up, because love is the stream. It’s all that matters and without it there aren’t any miracles. I resent it when people say that Sarah is crazy. She’d like love to be something special. That’s not crazy; it’s just hard. She’ll do anything for love. Anything.
More of the same, and more defensiveness towards something that is best left alone. In fact, some of the film’s best scenes show precisely what Cassavetes denies: Sarah’s craziness, not because Cassavetes feels it detracts from the film, but because it doesn’t fit into his original notions of what Love Streams is, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And as far as evidences goes, there’s a lot of it: Sarah’s pool scene, her initial refusal to give visitation rights to Jack, the massive amount of luggage she obsessively carries, her turning of Robert’s home into a farm she simply leaves in his care, the ‘reconciliation’ with her family after a symbolic dream. This is all just fuckin’ NUTS, whether Cassavetes likes it or not. Yet it’s well-sketched; it’s interesting and compelling to look at. Her issue isn’t ‘love,’ and nor is it Robert Harmon’s. There’s something deeper, more internal their lives. The real problem, for Sarah, is that she is unable to snap out of it. And Robert, well, he just doesn’t give a shit. Or rather, not enough.
Now, there’s probably many reasons for all these mis-steps. Yet reading Cassavetes’s comments on Love Streams, as well as Husbands and Minnie And Moskowitz — two other works with significant script flaws — it is clear that there’s a disconnect between what’s on-screen, and what’s in the director’s head. Cassavetes was notorious for shooting hundreds of hours of film, and even had enough footage to change Husbands into a completely different movie, thus going from universal acclaim for the original, give-me-money cut (screened for studio execs, as well as a number of fans), to near-universal condemnation and cries of “Fascist!” from viewers. At one point, Cassavetes even got into a physical confrontation with Ben Gazzara when the actor claimed he was “ruining” Husbands with these new edits. The point is that Cassavetes accumulated a lot of ideas during script revisions and character interviews (Why do you think Sarah said this? Imagine Archie here: what would he do in this situation?), and while not all of them made it into the final cut, they were still tallied in the director’s impressions of each film as a ‘personal’ creation. His discussion of Love Streams, for instance, is full of references to scenes that no longer exist, or script edits that turned out to be quite fleeting. His vision of Robert Harmon is colored by the ‘playboy’ nature of the original actor that Cassavetes wanted to play the role. This equates to months and months of planning and refining. Yet a film is bounded by choices that ultimately span a couple of hours, and even though every scene of Love Streams seems haunted — at least to Cassavetes — by earlier edits, and characters that de-compress in the director’s mind, back to their richer, fuller realizations, all that we see is the compression. And there is literally nothing else to fairly judge.
It’s hard to call Love Streams a noble failure, for it’s a solid film, overall, and great in parts. Yet it still fails not only in what Cassavetes set out to do — which is irrelevant, anyway — but, more importantly, in what it in fact does do, which simply can’t be sustained on the power of 3 or 4 sequences alone. Some might take issue with this interpretation, and claim that Love Streams is merely ‘challenging’. I’d argue that challenge is meaningless without a genuine reward. This is really what the best of John Cassavetes shows, and what the film critics, for their part, have not.