A dilapidated pulp writer whose life remains in a Hollywood mansion surrounded by his assistant, her daughter and a barrage of hookers and other women, or might I say subjects for his next work, with whom he gives his hospitality. But even in this behemoth of a house that never seems to have its shortage of young beautiful woman running about, we feel an emptiness every time he walks into a room, greeting his guests as a charming host would; even dressed the part in a classy suit and a liquor glass in hand. This is Robert Harmon. We observe as he uses his charm on those he gives refuge in his mansion and in a way, we can’t help but be charmed as well. He might very well be twice their age, yet the way he handles himself and presents his suave facade is contagious. But as the night goes on, we get a glimpse of another side of Robert. After a few intakes of alcohol at a nightclub, an innocent interview with the nightclub’s female singer for his upcoming book turns into an embarrassing experience involving him turning into a drunk maniac doing all in his power to attract the singer’s attention. A scene that is prone to make anyone wince includes Robert offering to drive her home (in his drunken state) and falling down a flight of stairs causing a fair share of cuts and bruises. We, as with the singer he tried so hard to pursue, can only feel pity as he lays helpless down a stairway a bloody mess, looking nothing like the suave sophisticated gentleman we were introduced to.
In a parallel storyline, we see an overly enthusiastic woman in the middle of her divorce hearing. Her last link with reality might very well be the custody of her daughter, Debbie, with whom she discusses her plans to travel to Huston or New York and their recent visits to funerals and hospitals to comfort those who are sick and those who have lost. We also hear her discuss to her lawyers about hers husband’s psychological problems and past infidelities leading them, and us, to believe he isn’t right to raise their daughter. Right away we can sense something isn’t completely right with her yet who are we to question? But after Debbie breaks her silence and reveals to her mother that she’d rather live with her father and her hate of the life she was forced to live with her, we see a change occur. In an almost zombie like state, her mother wonders lifelessly until finally collapsing. As we see her lying motionless, surrounded by those who are trying desperately to make sure she’s okay, we see a woman whose grip on her life and sanity has shattered. This is Robert’s sister Sarah. She, like her brother, also turns out to be nothing like the character she presented herself as. In a scene with her psychiatrist, we observe even more when she is told her past problems which seem so alien to her yet were so similar to those of which she described when she spoke of her husband’s inability as a father.
And like that, Cassavetes introduces us to the protagonists to what many believe to be his final opus, based on the play by Ted Allen. Both characters’ paths cross and as we see their stories progress, the worse and worse we feel as we witness their grips on their lives loosen. We begin to see the depth of Robert’s, played by Cassavetes himself in a role that could arguably be the best of his career, problems as he drinks more and in a pivotal section of the film where we are introduced to his son about the same time he is. In a scene that is surrounded with an atmosphere that is awkward to say the least, an ex lover drops by Robert’s house and reveals to him that he has a son and leaves the boy there for the weekend. This sets up a quintessential awkward but moving moment that only Cassavetes could get away with. Like the great sequence where Peter Faulk apologizes to his kids in the back of his coworker’s truck in A Woman under the Influence, Cassavetes creates a far from picturesque moment involving Robert talking to his son about life and then sharing a glass of beer as well. He then asks the kid if he wants to go with him to Vegas and the kid agrees. And yet another scene appears that we can’t help but wince to, as we see Robert dropping off his son in a hotel room while he goes off with two prostitutes. The segment between Robert and his son doesn’t last the whole film, but the segment alone might be one of the greatest Cassavetes has ever filmed. Cassavetes shows not only this character’s inability a father, but his inability to hold on to anything. We never see Robert as a horrible person who pushes everyone away, but as someone who just can’t understand what he’s doing wrong. As charming as an individual he is perceived to be, he can’t hold on to any of his relationships (not even that of his son). Robert is a character who holds everything inside and thus lives a lonely life.
As the film continues, Robert gets a second guest. This is where Sarah’s and Robert’s road finally cross and in this part of the film, we finally get a deeper look into Sarah and her fragile psyche. Her life makes Robert’s look like a fairy tale, but her genuinely optimistic attitude makes her into a character we root for even after she gets excoriating painful phone calls from her ex-husband and daughter or loses herself to blackouts during moments of stress. The last quarter shows her compulsive and behavior at its height as she basically turns her brother’s house into a menagerie just to cheer up Robert. The scenes are probably the most memorable of the film as we see Robert trying his hardest taking care of a newly acquired pony, goat and duck and bring them into the house in the middle of rain storm. But through these, we truly see the relationship between Robert and Sarah. We see Robert going through hell with animals roaming through his house, just to keep his sister with him. In most films, this scene would be played for jokes, and while these scenes some have a comic appeal; we still see the drama of the situation.
It’s also important to note that Sarah is played by Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’ wife and an actress who is too often forgotten when the discussion of great actresses are held. Her character in this film is in many ways similar to that of her great performance as the psychologically troubled housewife and mother Mabel from Cassavetes’ Woman under the Influence. Yet we never feel as if Rowlands is duplicating her performance. She creates yet another great performance and as she did in A Woman under the Influence, avoids the pitfalls of playing a character with psychological problems. Never do we see her overplaying it or chewing up scenery. But maybe some of that credit also should go to Cassavetes as well. So many times do we see independent filmmakers use the characters that with serious psychological problems and more time than not do we see them use that character s either a joke or be used as some sort of pseudo-profit. Never do we feel this way during the film.
This wouldn’t be Cassavetes’ final film (that would be Big Trouble, a film he did not have very much control over nor was written by him), but many have marked it his final masterpiece and by some as his greatest film. While that’s disputable especially when talking about a director whose filmography includes masterpieces like Shadows, Faces, and of course A Woman under the Influence, but I’m hard pressed to say that this isn’t his most technically impressive achievement. What has made Cassavetes so beloved is the fact that he brought a very rebellious attitude to filmmaking with guerilla camera movements and a very gritty realistic look that stood out compared to big budget American dramas. Yet while Love Streams does have a very realistic look that is characteristic of his work, we see Cassavetes using more static shots, more emphasis on lighting, and even a few dream sequences added in. Again the dream sequences aren’t anything as surreal or mind boggling of those of David Lynch or even David Cronenberg (although one strange sequence between Robert and random bearded man is peculiar to say the least) but they’re not too out of place and one, retelling Sarah’s story as an opera, is visually fantastically done.
Love Streams was released in 1984, the same year as another important American independent American film by another important American independent film director, Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise. It’s interesting to point this out because in a way, 1984 seems like a year that in a way represents a passing of the torch in independent film in American cinema. This isn’t to say the Jarmusch was the second coming of Cassavetes, but it’s hard not to look at Jarmusch’s magnum opus as maybe the one of the, if not the, most influential independent film of the past maybe 30 years. It would be the first of many independent films introducing a newer generation of independent filmmakers like Gus Van Sant, Coen Brothers, Richard Linklater, and Steven Soderbergh. Also the subjects of most independent films from the 80s weren’t about American middle class, middle age protagonists but more about a younger generation like those of the characters like Willie and Eva from Stranger than Paradise, or the apathetic jobless Texas twenty-something bohemians and misfits from Slacker. Even today we see more independent films that try harder to appeal to a more hipster audience or going overboard on a film that’s far too whimsical or just plain artsy for its own good. This isn’t to say there aren’t any good independent films today or that the directors I mentioned aren’t good (all of them have at least a few, and in some cases masterpieces, under their belts) or even that Jarmusch is the devil (he’s a fine filmmaker and Down by Law is one of my all time favorite films).
Love Streams, like many of Cassavetes’ other masterpieces, doesn’t have a conventional happy or sad ending, or even one that sums up everything you’ve just seen. It instead ends the only way that would make any sense; with a shot of Robert’s face and a look of uncertainty of the future. It seems almost perfect. These characters go their different path, and like us, not even they know what will happen next. Why Cassavetes’ film stand the test of time is not only their willingness to stray from convention Hollywood cinema, but the feeling that what we’ve just witnessed really took place. You never feel like you’re watching a film; you feel more like a fly on the wall, observing these two characters as they go through their daily lives. It’s an experience that, while not always entertaining, is one that leaves a mark on its audience. Love Streams is an unforgettable film viewing experience and the last of an era.
(Just wanted to say this is my first review and is probably pretty rusty. Also I know I’ve took my time getting just one review up and would like to thank to all those who’ve been patiently waiting)