Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Love Streams (1984)

Love Streams (1984) ****
Directed by: John Cassavetes.
Written by: Ted Allan & John Cassavetes based on the play by Allan.
Starring: Gena Rowlands (Sarah Lawson), John Cassavetes (Robert Harmon), Diahnne Abbott (Susan), Seymour Cassel (Jack Lawson), Margaret Abbott (Margarita), Jakob Shaw (Albie Swanson), Eddy Donno (Stepfather Swanson), Joan Foley (Judge Dunbar), Al Ruban (Milton Kravitz).

John Cassavetes was a singular cinematic voice. With his 1959 film Shadows, he essentially created the independent film movement in America. And while over the next 25 years, he would direct a few mainstream films, and made his living as a fine actor in such films as The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby, he spent much of his time directing smaller, more personal films. His best is inarguably A Woman Under the Influence, with its remarkable performance by his wife Gena Rowlands. Love Streams (1984) was essentially the last of his personal films (he directed another film the following year, but it was an utter failure, and was one of his mainstream efforts). Love Streams, like Cassavetes best work, is a film brimming with the messiness of real life – yet done in a style that some may call over the top, especially in its acting choices. Yet underneath that really is a film about pain and love.

To put it quite simply, Love Streams is a movie about a brother and a sister – one of whom loves too much and the other loves too little. Cassavetes himself play Robert, a successful novelist who writes about women. He has been divorced several times, and is now researching a new book about night life. Or so he says. We never see him writing, and all this research seems to be an excuse for Robert to do what he likes best – which is to drink and party and hang out with prostitutes all night long. One of his ex-wives shows up on his doorstep one day and introduces him to his son, who is now around 8. Robert knew his son existed, and has been writing cheques to support him for years (he writes cheques to everyone, including the prostitutes), but never met his son, and didn’t really care to. But the wife is in a bind, and needs Robert to watch the kid overnight. It’s clear Robert has no idea what to do around kids – it isn’t long before he gives his son a beer and decides to take the kid to Las Vegas for the night – although Robert essentially dumps the kid in the hotel room and goes out partying all night. We get the feeling that he is most likely never going to see his son again when he dumps him off at his mothers.

Then there is Robert’s sister Sarah (Gena Rowlands). Sarah is another one of Rowlands great creations for Cassavetes – from the party girl in Faces to the wife and mother struggling with her demons in A Woman Under the Influence to her out of control actress in Opening Night, Rowlands did her best work for her husband, and her performance here ranks among her best. She is going through a divorce from Jack (Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel), because quite frankly, he cannot deal with her craziness any longer. They have a 13 year old daughter who is tired of being dragged all over by her mother (who visits sick people), and wants a more normal life – something Sarah cannot give her, but Jack can. But Sarah cannot let go – for her love is continuous and everlasting, and long after the divorce is final, she calls up Jack and wants to get back together – telling him once that she is “almost sane now” (his response “I simply don’t care anymore”).

These two characters are kept apart for about the first half of the movie (unless I missed it, they do not even mention that they are brother and sister) – until one day she shows up on his doorstep. It is clear from the moment they see each other that have a close bond – perhaps a little too close to be healthy for a brother and sister. For him, Sarah is perhaps the only person in the world he truly loves. He is so self involved, and uses people for what they can offer him, but for her, he goes out of his way to please her. When she shows up with a menagerie of animals, he thinks she has lost it, but nevertheless goes about caring for them. He tries desperately to hold onto her, even as she pulls away (brilliantly symbolized in an daring opera sequence).

Love Streams is unmistakably a Cassavetes films, even though it contains none of his hallmark handheld camera work, and is actually based on a play written by Ted Allan (who reworked it to fit Cassavetes style). His characters love to talk, are always a little insane, yet are struggling to hold onto relationships that mean something to them. Cassavetes had a unique way with children – making them not the small adults we see in some films, nor the na├»ve innocents we see in others. He doesn’t make them automatically lovable – but he does allow them to behave like children. Robert’s son, and Sarah’s daughter for that matter, could easily be described as brats – but what they really are children struggling with either an absent parent (Robert) or a parent who too demanding in her insanity (Sarah).

Like the best of Cassavetes films, he makes us feel sympathy for characters that really are not all that nice. Robert is the type of guy most people eventually abandon – because although he is fun, he is also selfish and immature, and will drag you down with him if you let him. Cassavetes, in perhaps his best performance as an actor, captures this selfishness, and never tries to earn our sympathy – yet gets it anyway. As for Rowlands, it is impossible not to think of A Woman Under the Influence when watching this film – he character her could easily be her character in that movie a little further down the line, and little further into her own insanity. In that film, she survived because her husband (Peter Falk) somehow understood her, and perhaps was a little insane herself. Here, Robert tries to do that for Sarah – but for her it is not enough.

No one in a Cassavetes film learns anything – there is no simple moralizing, characters don’t go through transformations and become cured or better or less selfish. They are who they are. The end of the film is sad, not because of a death or anything like that, but because we get the sense that these lonely people are doomed to repeat what we have just seen. Robert will sink back into his selfishness and self destruction, and Sarah is going off to start her cycle of dependence all over again. The final image in Love Streams is just about perfect.

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