Saturday Editor’s Pick: Love Streams (1984) w/ I’m Almost Not Crazy

by on March 10, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat March 17 at 7:00* at 92YTribeca [Program & Tix]
*Dbl Ftr with I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes, The Man and his Work at 6:00

The website “Not Coming to a Theater Near You” graciously extends an evening of John Cassavetes rarities, pairing his late masterpiece Love Streams with the long out-of-print documentary shot on set during production.

Dennis Lim for The Village Voice:

All too rarely screened and still underappreciated, a movie that gets better with each viewing. Love Streams is at once a culmination of the director’s obsessions and his most atypical film. It’s a movie that gives up its mysteries slowly—flirting with theatricality, inserting dream sequences, concluding on a brazenly surreal enigma. Cassavetes stars as Robert Harmon, a tough-guy novelist with unorthodox research methods. Rowlands, magnificent as ever, is Robert’s sister, Sarah Lawson, a divorcée who turns up at his doorstep with two taxis full of luggage and an entire barnyard menagerie. An emotional live wire and by default a social rebel, the embarrassingly demonstrative Sarah is kindred spirit to A Woman Under the Influence‘s unhinged housewife Mabel Longhetti and Opening Night‘s aging stage star Myrtle Gordon: All are women with a raw-nerved, overwhelming capacity and need for love. The enormously moving interplay between Cassavetes and Rowlands gets at the heart of the performative spectacle unique to his films: an interaction beyond words and gestures, predicated on the invention of a shared language so hyperbolic and specific and almost inexplicable it must be love. Indeed, the movie—as its title suggests—performs an anatomy of its subject. More explicitly metaphysical than the other great Cassavetes films, it nonetheless shares their view of love as a way of life and a form of madness.



Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

John Cassavetes’s career of risk taking comes to a climax in this rich, original, emotionally magnificent 1984 film about a brother who is unable to love (Cassavetes) and a sister who loves too much (Gena Rowlands). For half its length the film follows their separate experiences—he as a celebrated novelist living a life of desperate dissolution in Los Angeles; she as a wife and mother undergoing a painful divorce in Chicago—and then brings them together for a rocky reunion. At the climax they trade roles, and each is alone again in a new way. Cassavetes follows his vision to the limit, a course that takes him through extravagance, indulgence, and hysteria—yet for all of his apparent disdain for classical construction, there isn’t a moment in the film that doesn’t find its place in a grand design.

Richard Brody for the New Yorker:

With the self-excoriating casting of himself and his wife, Gena Rowlands, as brother and sister, John Cassavetes, in his last film as writer-director, conjures a heady mood of romantic apocalypse. A successful author of books about women, Robert Harmon (Cassavetes) fills his suburban Los Angeles home with playgirls, whom he interrogates about their secrets, and he trawls cabarets for research on a book about night life. His sister, Sarah (Rowlands), lives in Chicago, where she has been in and out of mental institutions; miserably divorced, she loses custody of her teen-age daughter, yet keeps her wounded, cockeyed optimism. After Robert’s disastrous encounter with the eight-year-old son he has never seen, Sarah drops in—with two taxis full of baggage—for an open-ended stay. In hypnotically long scenes with a musical ebb and flow, Robert, in an advanced state of alcoholic degradation, and Sarah, in exuberant despair, lurch impulsively from high to high and bear the blows they give and take for love. “Life,” he tells her, “is a series of suicides, divorces, promises broken, children smashed, whatever,” and the controlled yet agonized performances raise the self-pitying asides to Beckett-like poetry for the shipwrecked survivors of the Tuxedo Age.



Geoff Andrews for Time Out (London):

As so often in Cassavetes’ work, there’s little plot: desperate attempts at a sexual life from a boozy, middle-aged writer staving off loneliness; a divorced woman’s struggles to hang on to her husband, daughter and sanity. Halfway through, when the woman takes refuge in the writer’s chaotic household, the nature of their relationship (they’re brother and sister) gradually unfolds. Very little else happens; but sparks fly throughout as the characters, guided firmly by the director’s customary emphasis on spontaneous, naturalistic performance, search for closeness, warmth and self-definition. It’s a long and wayward path, but humour, aching sadness, and sensitivity to the inner lives of people deemed eccentric, mingle to produce a rich, impressionistic tapestry. The oblique treatment occasionally leads to infuriating obscurity, but the movie’s sense of ‘real life’, dynamic performances, and admirable lack of moralising make it compulsive.


Jenny Jediny for Not Coming:

Held up against the verbally sharp, but emotionally cautious familial dramas that are increasingly cluttering move theaters, a John Cassavetes film, with its excessive, bold strokes, feels somewhat unnatural these days. Both Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands star in this turbulent tale of a middle-aged brother and sister who reunite as their lives are unraveling, and neither flinch when showing the inexcusable behavior of this pair, as their boozy, manic-depressive actions unavoidably hurt both themselves and their families. Yet he also manages to convey their desperation to love and feel loved, as screwed-up and co-dependent as it can be. The emotions on-screen here can feel like a train wreck; they also embody a naked, painful, and ultimately tender expression of the human condition.



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

John Cassavetes’s Love Streams is the kind of movie where a woman brings home two horses, a goat, a duck, some chickens, a dog, and a parrot, and you don’t have the feeling that the screenplay is going for cheap laughs. In fact, there’s a tightening in your throat as you realize how desperate an act you’re witnessing, and how unhappy a person is getting out of the taxi with all those animals.
The movie is exasperating, because we never know where we stand or what will happen next. I think that’s one of its strengths: There’s an exhilaration in this roller-coaster ride through scenes that come out of nowhere. This is not a docudrama or a little psychological playlet with a lesson to be learned. It is a raw, spontaneous life, and when we laugh (as in the scene where Cassavetes summons a doctor to the side of the unconscious Rowlands), we wince.
Viewers raised on trained and tame movies may be uncomfortable in the world of Cassavetes; his films are built around lots of talk and the waving of arms and the invoking of the gods. Cassavetes has been making these passionate personal movies for twenty-five years, ever since his Shadows helped create American underground movies. Sometimes (as in Husbands) the wild truth-telling approach evaporates into a lot of empty talk and play-acting. In Love Streams, it works.



Calum Marsh laments the film’s unavailability for PopMatters:

I know we’ve expressed our frustration over the unavailability of certain great and important films on DVD before, but the fact that Love Streams—which I agree is the best of John Cassavetes’ many excellent films—has never seen the light of day on home video in North America is outrageous in a singular way. We’re not talking about some egregiously difficult or even especially abrasive arthouse experiment languishing in the perpetual obscurity; we’re talking about a really resoundingly great film from one of the most important (and well-regarded) filmmakers ever. You can find almost all of his other films with relative ease, some of which are considerably more challenging or strange. Which isn’t to say that Love Streams is totally accessible by Hollywood standards, but it’s a rich, inviting work, full of beauty and vitality. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that Love Streams is the kind of film which can effectively change you, or that it’s emotional impact is…well, it’s unforgettable. I really like a lot of Cassavetes films but I love this one.

Jordan Cronk responds:

I think that passion has to stem from the generous and welcoming vibe of the film. It’s true that compared to concurrent Hollywood entertainments of the time, Love Streams may not be very traditional—it does after all retain all the freewheeling hallmarks of the improv-based Cassavetes style—and it’s long—but when I think of suburban life in the ‘80s, away from the gaudy lights of the big city, the sprawl of Love Streams just feels right. It’s comfortable and inviting despite uncovering an incisive underbelly at times, and film’s main setting—the real life home of Cassavetes and star Gena Rowlands at the time—lends it the feel of a familial documentary of sorts. These are believable characters struggling with real problems in a sympathetic way and it’s shot in such a manner that you end up feeling like you’ve lived with these characters for a period of time. Not unlike most of Cassavetes best work, sure, but here so natural and nonchalantly inspired it does, as you say, feel outrageous that more people don’t know about the film.

Marsh again:

Yes, the film has a very welcoming feel, if also an emotional sophistication which deepens it. I believe you mentioned this during our discussion of Altman’s California Split, too, but there’s this rather strange but potent dialectic between tragedy and comedy coursing through much of Cassavetes work that can be rather disarming if you’re unprepared for it. Thom Andersen said of Cassavetes that “his comedies face up to tragedy and reject it”, and I can hardly think of a more compelling definition of what makes Love Streams such a uniquely powerful drama. The narrative seems on paper like the stuff of tragedy—or maybe even straight-up melodrama at times—but the gravity of the drama is continually undermined by these unexpected surges of infectious warmth and humor. Which makes it a very unusual viewing experience, because you leave feeling both deeply moved but wholly entertained. It’s as though Cassavetes accepts sadness as a given, and, reconciling himself to it, begins to dive heedlessly toward little moments of bliss. It’s a beautiful sentiment.



The blog Like Anna Karina’s Sweater:

A culmination of themes explored in earlier works, Love Streams is Cassavetes in the eXtreme, and the experience while watching it is akin to being kicked in the sternum, repeatedly. The film is replete with the type of characters (and associated behaviors) you’d expect to find in a Cassavetes film — middle-aged men behaving like impulsive children, children imitating adults by drinking and smoking, adulterous husbands and mentally unstable wives, tuxedo clad machos full of bravado and the bevy of young women who adore them, etc. There’s an air of loneliness that permeates the whole film, and virtually every character suffers from a lack of love.
It’s interesting to note that this is one of the few films Cassavetes directed that he didn’t write. You’d never guess while watching it, for the raw desperation and character interplay is so very Cassavetian. (A fair amount of the dialog is clearly improvised.) What’s remarkable (and unique) about the film is the way in which it gradually progresses towards decay, stripping itself down to the barest of elements, as if Cassavetes knew this would be some sort of farewell. (It’s also the only Cassavetes film to make use of elaborate dream/fantasy sequences.) After two hours of non-stop interactions with strangers, hookers, rediscovered family members, therapists, former spouses, lawyers, etc., the film ends up with John and Gena surrounded by animals (which at one point are mistaken for humans), trapped like some latter-day Noah while a storm of biblical proportions rages around them. Shot in their own Los Angeles home, much of the film’s success rests with John and Gena’s ability to transcend language and communicate (to each other and the audience) via their own love streams. Gena has never looked lovelier, and John never worse (the bags under his eyes are horrifying), and what the two of them shared as both artists and husband and wife is fully exposed here as never before. Love Streams is one of the most beautiful, yet painful films of all time.


Cassavetes scholar George Kouvaro in conversation with Senses of Cinema:

Love Streams is for me Cassavetes’ greatest film and his most mysterious. My attachment to this film may have something to do with the sense that something has changed by the time that you get to this film.


There is a sense that the energy associated with Cassavetes’ characters is also quite different. Love Streams is a film where energy is spasmodic, where performances seem to stall at the very point where they are about to begin. Nearly every performance in the film is interrupted. The dance between Robert and Sarah in front of the jukebox is broken off by Robert just when there’s this sense that they are coming together. Robert’s dance with Margarita is interrupted by the arrival of Susan. There are other instances of these short circuits. In Cassavetes’ earlier films there is a tendency for performance to become elongated, for example, Mabel (Gena Rowlands)’s terrifying breakdown in A Woman Under the Influence. By the time we get to Love Streams, things are much more truncated. This might have something to do with Cassavetes’ illness at the time. Something is passing across from the body of the actor to the body created within the film (two things impossible to separate). The kind of energy that we associate with his other films can no longer be sustained. And that lends a certain sense of things being post-facto.
But this of course is not the full story. What makes the film so mysterious is that the energy previously associated with his central characters now seems to be transferred to the world around them, and this leads to the creation of a kind of magical space where anything is possible. I’m reminded of the flow of taxis coming up Robert’s driveway, the stream of visitors, the collection of animals Sarah brings home and the hallucination. The sense of magic also marks the grandeur of Sarah’s dream of reconciliation. The final image of Robert/Cassavetes standing behind the window looking out onto an environment which is storm ridden, doffing his hat and exiting the frame echoes the final image of Cosmo in Chinese Bookie. In both instances there is a suggestion that performance is something that can’t be contained within the individual figure. It is much more poignant in Love Streams because of the sense of exhaustion that hangs over the film.



Robert Kennedy on the documentary, for Cranes Are Flying:

An intimate documentary shot during the making of Cassavetes last major film Love Streams (1984), the film title comes not from a Cassavetes character but from a line spoken over the phone by Gina Rowlands character Sarah Lawson, “Jack, I’m almost not crazy now,” to her divorced husband Jack (Seymour Cassel), where after a long absence abroad she’s eager to reunite. Jack’s classic response is “I just don’t care” as he hangs up on her. There’s a terrific scene shot with Cassavetes and his script girl as he attempts to write these lines, where’s he’s already got Rowlands lines, but he can’t think of the retort, nevertheless, the camera holds on him for several minutes awaiting his line which never comes. This is an utterly conventional film about an utterly unconventional man, a guy driven by the best of intentions, who was sick of the way movies manipulate and lie and resort to convention, trying to discover a new way to tell some of the same stories, but from a more personal point of view. Cassavetes intention, as expressed ably by Cassel, was for people to care. For or against, love or hate, so long as his films provoked a personal response he thought they’d be remembered 10 to 20 years down the road. To that end, he made about 9 films that truly “mattered,” in the Cassavetes sense of the word.
Besides Cassavetes, who has a kind of infectious personality, whose energy and enthusiasm for life feels endless, one of the real revelations here is his wife Gena Rowlands, as it shows the two of them working together, where the director couldn’t be more supportive and understanding of his star actress, showing keen personal insight into how to spring an improvised scene on her – – at the last minute with barely any time to rehearse. Rowlands acknowledges she likes to spend time with her characters, allowing them to infiltrate into her normal life, where she spaces in and out of character, where her daughter Zoe affectionately has to remind her, “Earth to mom, earth to mom, come in please.” Separately, it’s clear they each have a unique understanding of one another, as Cassavetes’s films live and breathe through Rowlands’ characters, as she’s the force that carries the film, while she trusts her husband’s instincts implicitly. The rare intimacy that they share together is captured in the time capsules of his movies.
Some of the editing is truly exceptional, especially the brief clips chosen from the major works of the director. Each one is set up very well in advance by information revealed in Ventura’s documentary, which is mostly an expression of curiosity. At 60 minutes, it moves at a rapid clip and never bogs down, showing a variety of people and their views, getting a feel of what it’s like to work with a guy who is such a force of nature. Love Streams was shot in the Cassavetes home, one of about 6 films that uses the home, but here the camera can stop and linger over some of the pictures on the wall, getting a better glimpse of a completely unpretentious but comfortable and lived-in home. While playing backgammon with what appears to be his fellow Greek production designer Phedon Papamichael, the subject of Socrates rolls around, a jerk in Cassavetes opinion, displaying his typical diplomacy, for conceiving a world through logic alone. Philosophy is often discussed on the set, where we hear from the director, “We’re making a picture about inner life, and nobody really believes that it can be put on a screen—including me—I don’t believe it either – – but screw it.”


  • What is perhaps even more perplexing and troubling than the lack of respect, appreciation and availability for this film, is the TOTAL lack of mention (or even awareness) of Ventura’s incredible book “Cassavetes Directs: The Making of Love Streams” by any of these people writing about this film. Especially since some of these questions or speculations are covered in that remarkable document. Ventura was on the set almost every single day and relays the always interesting and sometimes astounding events with impeccable detail in a wonderful writing style.  I read it with tears of joy and an attempt to pace myself, savoring it. I contacted Ventura after reading it and interviewed him (for a long article on the film that I am still working on) and found him to be still affected by this man in a profound way. I IMPLORE anyone interested in this film or Cassavetes to get that book. You will not regret it and you will kick yourself for not doing so sooner.

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