Let It Bleed

08.22.14

John Cassavetes, Love Streams, 1984, 35 mm, color, sound, 141 minutes. Sarah Lawson and Robert Harmon (Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes).


THE COVER IMAGE of the Criterion booklet for John Cassavetes’s Love Streams (1984) Blu-ray is a doozy. Who is that motherfucker in the goofy hat? (And what’s love got to do with it?) It’s Cassavetes, naturally, but that chintzy gardener’s chapeau makes him look like he’s auditioning for the role of Torgo in a John Huston remake of Manos: The Hands of Fate. It is an awesomely unflattering look—the face moist and sickly (it’s supposed to be rain-soaked, but here it looks like fever sweat on a wax effigy), eyes darting and ever-wary, the full-frontal effect ludicrous, scary, guardedly self-aware, and desperately, inscrutably sincere. If ever a shot screamed “warts and all,” this is it.

Love Streams is, in part, Cassavetes’s version of a slapstick comedy: The central, repeated gag is the epic amount of baggage Sarah Lawson (Gena Rowlands) lugs from train station to train station to, eventually, her brother Robert Harmon’s (Cassavetes) house in the hills. Harmon is supposed to be a hotshot writer working on a book about “nightlife,” but this seems like the flimsiest of pretexts for Cassavetes to interact with an assortment of mostly younger women. He’s a nebulous artist-playboy figure who acts like a private eye of the heart. Almost as an aged, adrift/bereft version of his early Johnny Staccato character, he stalks the mysteries of romantic, familial, filial, and artistic love; also, like any P.I. worth the salt in his wounds, he even gets beaten up in the process. (In more ways than one.)

It’s tempting to see the movie as Cassavetes’s Long Goodbye: Besides the flaky, bittersweet affinities with Altman’s classic, this was his literal last hurrah. He received a diagnosis of terminal cirrhosis of the liver shortly after shooting began and reconceived/rewrote the picture on the fly. A sense of summing-up comes with the territory, yet it’s his most open-ended film, sometimes feeling as much like starting-again-from-scratch as a summation. Examining the pieces of his life’s work, he reevaluates his motives and methods, poking at them, kidding them and kicking them like the tires on a used car.

Joined in mid-blur-of-consciousness, in Love Streams continuity constantly gives way to dream logic and dream logic takes up residence in the most humdrum everyday objects and objectives. Separate plot motifs are streams that crisscross the movie and intersect for a moment, then go on as if headed for different movies. The film is more an anthology of stories that bleed into each other than a linear narrative: The subject is the inner life, but with its breathtakingly cavalier shock cuts and elisions, the dominant sensation is of zigzag movement where the viewer is being tugged forward, sideways, and backwards at more or less the same time. Dream sequences are shot with a mundane, real-time excruciation (when Rowlands assumes the guise of a poolside prop comic and tries in vain to make her husband and daughter laugh) or affectless theatricality (an operetta of reconciliation). A hair-raising one-minute chase down a steep hill isn’t a dream but has a sense of surrealism erupting in the midst of a quiet California neighborhood: Cassavetes is at the wheel and there’s a sense of real danger, working without a net or stunt doubles.

Slapstick though is as much an organizing principle as anything: Sarah’s mountains of trunks and cases, the menagerie of animals that she later brings back to the house, miniature horses disgorging from a taxi like clowns at a flea-bitten circus; Robert tending the animals inside his home/ark as though he were Noah under a Southern California flood. A frisky set piece where Sarah goes to a bowling alley to pick up some spares and/or a man foreshadows elements of The Big Lebowski, packing as much smudgy weirdness into a few minutes without making a whole ostentatious federal case about it.

Playing brother and sister (though the movie is very coy about that for the first hour or so), Cassavetes and Rowland encompass a whole fierce spectrum of family relations: absent father/smother-mother, siblings in love with their own reflections in each other, most of all a couple of recalcitrant children seemingly incapable of ever outgrowing their neediness or fear of “real” intimacy (whatever that is). In this ballet of disorientation and regression, Love Streams harks back to the most potent, poignant, impossible stream of all. Not love but alcohol—as self-medication, as a means to self-expression in a culture that tamps emotions down, both a permission slip and an all-purpose excuse from responsibility for actions, inactions, failures, and calculated blackouts.

The supplemental material that comes with the Love Streams disc is terrific. It features the critic and novelist Michael Ventura’s making-of documentary, “I’m Almost Not Crazy,” and a Ventura commentary that encapsulates the Romantic-aesthetic-personal thrall Cassavetes had for his devotees. Each one captures the Cassavetes ethos of better-alchemy-through-chaos: means and ends, experience and experimentation, all pitched together into an extended family endeavor, where a sense of belonging, purpose, undivided loyalty, and Us (Team Cassavetes) vs. Them (the Phonies, the Cowards, the money-mad Entertainers) mentality played out in creative, confounding terms. It’s a more intensely private version of what the larger, convention-bound public took from the Godfather films and The Sopranos. On Cassavetes’s love-it-or-fuck-you terms, the blood and passion wasn’t gussied up and spoon-fed to you from a silver Hollywood punchbowl.

Love Streams pours out like a hemorrhage, but a comic, operating-theater-of-the-absurd one. Of this I know whereof I speak: While working on this little bauble, a surgically repaired (or so I believed) spot in my mouth suddenly burst, opening up a nasal-size passage into my sinus and dumping out big black gobs of congealed blood, pus, and tissue into the bathroom sink, sending me to the emergency room. I am positive Cassavetes’s first impulse when handed a metaphor like that would be to use it first and ask questions later. Disease as serendipity-doo-dah, Method Criticism in Action, and perhaps too a gently gruesome reminder that his critics have holes in their heads just like his characters.

Howard Hampton

Love Streams is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.