Wednesday, July 27, 2011

PopMatters Feature: ReFramed No. 6 - John Cassavetes' Love Streams


In this week's installment, our cinematic revisionists revisit John Cassavetes last feature, the magnificent Love Streams.
Jordan Cronk: We’ve mentioned it a few times already in this series and compared it to one of the only films that seems to exist on a similar wavelength (California Split), but now we can dive into the glories of what in a spiritual sense is John Cassavetes final work, his magnificent 1984 feature, Love Streams. I recently had a chance to revisit the entire Cassavetes catalogue during a Los Angeles retrospective of his work, and seeing all these films in close proximity to each other, where I could weigh their respective charms and characteristics, only confirmed for me that this is his single best picture, the one that consolidates all his strengths and most lucidly translates his many themes as a storyteller. I don’t know about you, but to me this is simultaneously his most watchable and rewarding work, which makes it an even greater crime that the film has never made its way to DVD.

Calum Marsh: 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.

Cronk: 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: That’s what happens when a film isn’t readily available for consumption, its reputation diminishes and its place in the canon is compromised. People just forget. There’s no other plausible reason why Love Streams lacks the reputation among cinephiles that his more widely available A Woman Under The Influence still retains.

But 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.

Cronk: Indeed it is. As you said that I began to think of the scene toward the beginning of the film when the Casavetes character is chatting with his young son who he hasn’t seen since he was born, only to casually drink a beer with him. The implications behind the reconciliation are serious as Cassavetes plays something of a playboy in the film, entertaining various women at all-night house parties (come to think of it, the outlying women even remind me a bit of the ladies in California Split as well) when he isn’t drinking his way out of his writers block, but it’s a funny, charming scene on a conversational level. Of course, Cassavetes did this throughout his career, but sometimes it could go a little overboard in one direction or the other (the extremes, in both content and arguably quality, being Husbands and Minnie and Moskowitz), but here the results are layered, multi-faceted, and eventually tragic. The final shot is one of the saddest yet most life-affirming finales of any film I can think of; just a glorious way to end such a relentless film.

Marsh: It’s a sublime ending, yes, and one that I find a little hard to watch because it’s just so emotionally exhausting. And as far as that scene with his estranged child, you’re right that it’s both immediately amusing but implicitly damning, and that ambiguity about what you’re watching—and how you’re supposed to feel about what you’re watching—is one of the most interesting things about this film. The scene that stands out the most to me occurs much later, when the Gena Rowlands character—who has just suffered a sort of nervous breakdown after her husband and daughter bluntly cut her out of their lives—has this incredibly surreal dream about attempting to entertain her family. She bets her family that she can make them laugh in under a minute, and they just stare at her blankly while she hurries through this desperate and totally pathetic clown routine. It’s hard to describe, but it’s unlike everything else in the film, and the tone is sinister and dream-like in an almost Lynchian way. But for some reason it emerges, to me at least, as one of the most emotionally devastating sequences, ever.

Cronk: And following that is a series of further breakdowns and hallucinations and things of that nature, and at one point towards the end Cassavetes just breaks into this hilariously exhausted laughter. Seeing this in a theater with a large audience recently really demonstrated just how invested we become we these characters and the way Cassavetes seemingly laughs from his disbelief in his own plot development turns out to reveal a fascinating sympathy between viewer and actor/director. These moments seem like they can only arise out of truly inspired improvisation, of the sort which really only Altman and Cassavetes can lay claim to in the American cinema.

Marsh: Laughter becomes a kind of soundtrack in many of Cassavetes’ films, but just like in his early masterpiece Faces, laughter in Love Streams rarely correlates to ordinary humor. Again, it’s that uncanny confluence of tragedy and humor which makes it unique, where at their most ostensibly jovial his characters are in fact at their most desperate, and at their glummest they’re tapping into something weirdly hilarious. I mean, probably the funniest scene in the film involves Cassavetes himself getting beaten up by his estranged son’s stepfather after he takes the kid to Vegas for a weekend. It’s the character’s lowest point, but it’s almost perversely comedic.

Cronk: And this is all a natural outgrowth of Cassavetes and his troupes’ methods. Nothing is compromised. He raised money for these films by acting in other productions he probably didn’t want anything to do with, and shot with his own equipment at his own house with his own family. It’s that personal touch that endears his work to those lucky enough to find exposure to it (a half decade ago, there was very little Cassavetes available in the digital marketplace). It’s never fussed over production-wise: the scene you just mentioned features multiple shots where you can see the shadow of the camera on the ground as Cassavetes is running around getting beat up. He held strong in his ideological intent basically from beginning to end (we shall not speak of Big Trouble), and as a result few filmmakers make me more proud of American independent cinema. I guess it’s just a shame that most will probably be forced to view this expansive work in a compromised manner, whether that be via bootleg or download. I’m assuming that’s how you first saw Love Streams as well?

Marsh: Naturally. Although it is playing at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto next week as part of a comprehensive Cassavetes retrospective, so there are crowds lucky enough to catch this film the way it was intended to be seen. But you know, it’s funny, because from an aesthetic standpoint I actually admire how infrequently his films dip into stylistic amateurism even though, as you’ve pointed out, his films are made in a non-professional and therefore literally “amateur” manner. They may be somewhat rough around the edges, but all of his films are quite stunning to look at, and in fact Love Streams is probably his most conventionally beautiful-looking work. Just think about that outstanding closing shot: we see a Cassavetes drinking in his living room through a rain-streaked window at night, and it looks almost painterly. So while his films are fiercely independent and lovingly hand-crafted—he essentially ushered in the American independent cinema as we know it—the ideology which informs them doesn’t wholly command or define their aesthetic. That’s pretty exceptional.

Cronk: Oh, certainly. The final shot, as we’ve said, is framed and cut so beautifully that it can be difficult to watch, its retroactive connotations adding to its sublimity. Opening Night is also wonderfully visual, and his early black & white films exemplify many of the advantages of shooting in the format. I’m glad this Cassavetes repertory tour is making the rounds—one of the few New York retrospectives to make its way out of the Big Apple—and nearly every screening at the Los Angeles iteration sold out, with the crowds absolutely jazzed, which again speaks to the over arcing demeanor of Cassavetes’ work. Some of his stuff can be superficially imposing—running times, shooting and acting style—but I’d bet it’s rare for a viewer not to identify with the motivation of at least one character in every Cassavetes film. His films were, above all else, about everyday people.

Marsh: There’s a line in Love Streams that sums the mentality up: he tells his son that when he’s a little older, he should just hit the road and hitchhike across the country, and that if he were to just find a truck stop and sit down and have a cup of coffee, he’d “see what men are really like—not these guys out here with their suits and ties, but real men”. And in his delivery you don’t hear derision or contempt directed toward either the “real” men or the ones with suits and ties, exactly; his point isn’t even really about ‘authentic’ masculinity or class divisions, but rather the more challenging suggestion that in order to find life you need to empathize with people who aren’t like you, who lead different lives. Cassavetes made movies about “real people”, and that often meant people we don’t immediately like, or people we’d actively avoid talking to if we saw them in the street.

I have friends who find his films insufferable as a result of that “realness”, and that’s because Hollywood trains us to want to watch people we find attractive and desirable. Cassavetes’ characters are rarely attractive in that way, but there’s so much more truth in what he chooses to train his camera on, instead. To quote Andersen again, his movies are about “those flickers of lunacy that can separate us from our fellows”, and that resonates. [PM]

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