Love Streams: Striving to End on a High Note

by Erix Antoine

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Shortly before commencing production on Love Streams, in early 1983, John Cassavetes went to the doctor because he had been feeling ill. The doctor saw an unseemly bulge in Cassavetes’ stomach and sighed: “Oh no, John. Not you.”

Cassavetes was diagnosed with terminal cancer and informed he had only six months to live.

He immediately told no one and set about making his final film.

Knowing this and watching Love Streams charges the experience with an added layer of poignancy. In many ways, it’s his most powerful film because it is such a clear statement on the nature of love as well as a celebration of sentiment. If you consider that Cassavetes made it knowing full well it would be his final film, it makes complete sense and all of its ambiguities become startlingly clear.

Love Streams is the opulent farewell statement from a steadfast humanist. A man often accused of cynicism, who in fact had not a cynical bone in his body. A man who believed in people and their capacity to be fascinating just by being real. It is said that Cassavetes eschewed sentimentality in his films, but that’s only half true. His films are charged with powerful emotion and, at their best, packed with sentiment. What he eschewed was false sentimentality, cheap audience manipulation of the Hollywood variety. But there are many moving moments in Faces; meanwhile, A Woman Under the Influence is a heartbreaking film, and Opening Night is a roller-coaster of pure emotion.

Love Streams overflows with feeling…

It believes in the purity of love, while admitting how confused that emotion actually is. And it observes the complexities of human relationships with a frankness that cuts as deep as any of Cassavetes’ films, leading to emotional climaxes where you might actually find yourself weeping as openly as with any Hollywood tearjerker. But, if this happens, it is because the film has honestly earned those tears, not squeezed them out of you with parlor tricks.

The film at first has two parallel narratives. First, we meet Robert Harmon (John Cassavetes in a role originally intended for Jon Voight). Harmon is a successful writer living in a small mansion in the Hollywood hills. We see that his life consists of frivolous activity. He always has young groupies sharing his bed and spends his nights going from one hot night spot to another; experimenting the night life presumably for “research” on a book he’s writing. It becomes clear to the viewer, right away, that his is a rather empty existence. If there is any love in his heart, it is an abstract concept, expressed through the give and take of hedonistic pursuits. There is an abundance of physical contact, but very little in the way of actual human connections. When he comes close to experiencing this, with a young lounge singer that expresses the desire for a deeper relationship, he immediately pulls away and draws himself inward.

Introspective Cassavetes.

Introspective Cassavetes.

Next, we meet Sarah Lawson (Gena Rowlands) – a recently divorced housewife in her late 40s, currently engaged in a heated custody battle with her ex husband for their pre-teen daughter. The husband, Jack, is played by Seymour Cassel (more on this detail presently). In the tradition of all Rowlands’ Cassavetean characters, Lawson is an emotionally compromised woman who refuses to let go. Her marriage is clearly over, with all the physical and psychological separation that rupture entails. But she believes “love is a stream,” which is to say it is constant and ever flowing, never reaching a definitive end. Robert Harmon shows us love as little more than a construct, whereas Sarah Lawson expresses love as a pure and crippling emotion – bordering on an obsessive sense of need. It’s almost as if, without love – expressed albeit not reciprocated – she would be unable to exist.

The connection between the two characters is something Cassavetes cannily refuses to reveal for almost the entire first hour of the film. In a normal, traditional narrative, this might render the film confusing. But Cassavetes wants to intrigue us. Who are these people? And what is the film trying to tell me about their lives?

Eventually, it is revealed that Harmon and Lawson are brother and sister. This happens when Sarah, having lost custody of her daughter and traveled around Europe as a way to clear her head, comes to stay with Robert at his mansion. It makes sense that, her marriage over and nuclear family broken apart, she would look to the only family she has left to aid in her healing process; even as she refuses to actively heal herself.

Gena Rowlands as Sarah Lawson.

Gena Rowlands as Sarah Lawson.

The revelation that they are brother and sister puts the entire first hour of the film in perspective and prepares us for the next 80 minutes, which will be a parallel and continuous exploration of their psyche (and emotional connection to each other, as well as others). These are two people who seem to exist on exact opposite ends of the spectrum with regards to love. One sees it as an inevitability and a necessity, whereas the other not only believes he has no need for it, he doesn’t even believe it can really exist. Brother and sister feed off each other’s emotions for the remainder of the film, ultimately coming to startling revelations or conclusions about themselves.

It’s especially interesting to see Cassavetes and Rowlands play brother and sister on screen.

When Love Streams was originally performed (as a play, co-written by Ted Allan) it starred Gena Rowlands as Sarah and Jon Voight as Robert. The two act play began with Sarah arriving at Robert’s house after her trip to Europe and took things from there.

From an aesthetic point of view, it certainly makes sense to cast Voight as Rowlands’ kid brother. Both actors are robust, blond, very American archetypes. They look the part of brother and sister. Cassavetes, in fact, much preferred Voight’s portrayal of Harmon – reportedly charged with sexual energy and humor – to his own, which he felt was darker and more introspective.

But the film and the play are two different animals, in any case, and Cassavetes’ bleaker take on the character works very well for the film he made. Added to that the already deep personal connection he shared off-screen with Rowlands. When you see the two of them on screen, the connection is electric. They may not look the part of brother and sister, but they most certainly feel right together.

There are many touching, revelatory and funny scenes throughout the film. One standout is an early moment in which they have a discussion about their parents, while having a snack in the kitchen. Cassavetes is concealed behind a wall for the entire conversation. All we see is his arm resting on the table. But we no less feel their connection. As Sarah leaves, Robert gives her a cute wave with his index finger. Later, they dance in the dark to a love song he has activated on his jukebox.

Another wonderful and funny sequence is a later event, towards the end. When Sarah decides that her brother is lonely, she goes overboard and buys a Noah’s Ark of pets. She brings home two small horses, a goat, a parakeet and a pit bull named Nick. This is not only amusing, it is heartwarming. Robert stands incredulous at his door as Sarah stumbles in, dragging these animals behind her. He is annoyed, but there is a moment where you sense a genuine gratitude and love in his heart for his sister. That love is genuine because it radiates from Cassavetes’ own heart as the pride he feels for his wife. The two actors are able to channel this and very believably portray two very different people who actually grew up together.

Cassavetes and Rowlands. Just right together.

Cassavetes and Rowlands. Just right together.

The sentimentality in this film is palpable and direct. It’s possible that, since he knew he was dying, Cassavetes decided to spare nothing and make as honest and pure a final statement as he possibly could. This is evident during all the film’s emotional moments. And there are actual things said, throughout, that are taken from his actual life and way of thought.

Early in the film, there is an extended sub-plot about Robert Harmon caring for his estranged 10-year-old son. There is a discussion about “being a man” that is the same sort of pep talk Cassavetes would use on his own children. And during the aforementioned kitchen conversation, Sarah talks of their father’s saying how “for every problem, there is an answer,” which is what Cassavetes’ own father would always say.

Although the film is ultimately rather hopeful, there is an undercurrent of finality and perhaps a certain fatalism that runs through it. That could be, in part because of Cassavetes’ own impending death, but also because his father had passed some four years earlier, while his mother had died shortly before the start of production. All of Cassavetes’ films are a personal expression. He had already dealt with his youth, his adulthood, his marriage and his work. Now, here, in his final film, he deals with death. His own death, surely, but also the process of coping with the loss of loved ones. To experience that therapy is to be moved…powerfully.

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For his final run, also, Cassavetes decides at last to experiment with the cinematic form. All his previous films had been relatively straight-forward. They may have been thematically complicated in their content and non-traditional in their structure and pacing. But they were minimalist in their stylistic approach. He used a raw, almost documentary aesthetic and let the story occur spontaneously in the present. He would never employ a flashback, for example, and with the exception of Opening Nightwith its supernaturally-charged subplot about a dead fan – would completely ignore the possibility of fantasy.

Love Streams is as raw and naturalistic as any of his films. But, for the first time, Cassavetes finally experiments with surrealism. This comes in the form of some compelling dream sequences for Sarah. In a previous Cassavetes film, Sarah’s psyche might have been explored through deep conversation. Here, it is explored through her dreamscape. And it is done in an intriguing way, where – save for one very obvious instance – we are never quite sure if what we’re seeing is a dream.

Her reaction to the loss of her family is represented by a horrifying dream in which she mows down her husband and daughter with her car, killing them both. The vivid symbolism in this scene – that she feels she has caused the destruction of her own family – is stunning. Later, there is a heartbreaking dream sequence in which she gambles her “family’s love” on a bet that she can make them laugh within thirty seconds. She uses several trinkets and cheap gags (like fake peanut jars and funny glasses) and her desperation grows as her daughter continuously exclaims: “But, mom, you’re not funny!” As she sees her time running out, she does a final pratfall into the swimming pool…drowning herself.

Not funny.

Not funny.

The final dream sequence is the most elaborate and interesting. Her hopes for a reconciliation with her estranged family are dramatized as an opera (performed on an elaborate stage, with costumes and dramatic lighting) composed by Cassavetes and his longtime collaborator, musician Bo Harwood. In the opera, the family all profess their undying love for one another. But the only one whose face shows any sincerity is Sarah. It is a strange but very effective visual metaphor – life is an opera.

Although Cassavetes experiments with form, he retains his esthetic minimalism. And, because this is very consciously his final film, decides to put a final stamp on his entire film career. If you’re watching carefully, you will see the film as a compendium of his entire oeuvre. Robert Harmon may have originally been played by Jon Voight, but here he is a summation of all of Cassavetes’ characters and alter egos. He is Ben from Shadows all grown up. He is Gus from Husbands, having completely embraced his hedonism.

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But the film recalls prior work in other, more overt ways. First there is the casting of Seymour Cassel as Sarah’s husband. Is he implying this is the result of Minnie and Moskowitz’s marriage? It certainly appears so. Cassel even sports a similar look. His hair and mustache are shorter and more conservative – because he is now middle aged – but the visual connection is all too easy to make, regardless.

And the connection doesn’t stop there. Because, when looked at coldly, isn’t Sarah Lawson just an extension of Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence? She tends to flow in the same “stream” so to speak, given to equally absurd flights of fancy (bringing home zoo animals as pets, for instance) and possessed with the same eager desire to constantly please in her search for the reciprocation of pure love. That Sarah Lawson finally does find love in the arms of a soft-spoken stranger in a bowling alley seems almost like a nod to Longhetti’s impulsive visits to bars. Longhetti was spoken for. But Lawson isn’t, and – this time – the woman is allowed to take home what she came for.

Early in the film, Robert Harmon walks into a seedy gay night club (part of his night life “research”). This is the world of Cosmo Vittelli all over again. With its gaudy lighting and tacky songs being performed on stage. Meanwhile, Robert Harmon does his best to soak it all in…to belong. And, isn’t the big opera just a continuation of Opening Night and its presentation of life as a theater of the absurd? It was even shot on the same stage.

Even Gloria makes a “comeback.” That film presented a mentor/apprentice relationship between a woman who hated children and a boy who hated her. Here, we have Robert Harmon, doing his best to connect with the son he never wanted. This time, the child actor is a good one and the harrowing scenes of parental irresponsibility are effective. This time, when Robert leaves his son alone for 24 hours in a Vegas hotel, while he goes out Tomcatting, the result is sympathy. We feel for the boy.

With all those elements in place, Cassavetes assembles his parting shot. It’s a “greatest hits” collection that actually observes and comments on his entire career, while also providing a definitive statement on his divided view of life. It’s divided because he presents two opposing, and equally valid, points of view about love. And we know he genuinely agrees with both views because he allows neither of them to win the argument in the end.

Sharing the screen one last time.

Sharing the screen one last time.

The final shot of the film shows Robert Harmon through a window, waving good-bye to his sister as she is driven away by her lover, on a rainy night. That wave may seem ambiguous. Is Robert Harmon waving good-bye to his sister, or is John Cassavetes waving good-bye to us?

Even then, the quintessential American philosopher of film allows us to decide for ourselves.

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