I have a pretty simple metric to judge how much I like a film. How many screen shots do I take? How does it look frame by frame. Do I think the actors have interesting faces? Do I like the film’s lighting? Does it have one or more particularly striking images that work as still photographs? For Love Streams, John Cassavetes acclaimed final movie, I set a record. I took no screen shots at all.
Love Streams is poorly lit, visually unimaginative, and badly paced. It’s over 2 hours of mostly drab, unattractive people speaking in cliches. Oddly enough, however, I still recommend that everybody see it at least once. In some ways, Love Streams broke my metric. That I was at times bored silly by the whole rambling mess doesn’t mean that it’s not an important film. It’s full of psychological insight. It asks important questions about the purpose of cinema. Cassavetes is the most Whitmanesque of filmmakers. He gives his voice to damaged people. He puts their pain and loneliness at the center of his creation.
Robert Harmon, Cassavetes, is a writer, and, apparently, a very successful one, who lives in a big, rambling house in Los Angeles. He’s also an alcoholic and a sex addict, spending a lot more time drinking and hiring prostitutes than he does writing. His sister, Sarah Lawson, played by Gena Rowlands, in the middle of divorce proceedings, can’t quite let go of her husband. She was a 13-year-old daughter who chooses to stay with her father. She has no career or, for that matter, any visible means of support. Nevertheless, she’s independently wealthy, free to travel where she wants and drop in on her brother any time she chooses.
That’s pretty much it as far as plot goes.
Love Streams might best be thought of as a series of vignettes held together by a character study. The strongest part of the film, to my mind, comes when Harmon’s ex-wife comes to his house with their 8-year-old son. Does she want money? Harmon asks. No. She just wants him to babysit for the weekend. Why? Her motivations are never explained. Perhaps she just wanted her son to get to know his biological father. Harmon agrees. Chaos ensues. After his father takes him into the house, he introduces him to a gaggle of hookers — I think they were hookers — he’s hired for the weekend. The women fawn over the little boy. He runs away, taking off down Laurel Canyon so fast Harmon has to jump in his car to chase him down. As Harmon and his son start to bond, Cassavetes explores the difference between an adult and a child, how difficult it is for some men to interact with their children. We also begin to see Harmon’s milieu from the little boy’s perspective. Who are these crazy, out of control adults? Adults who damage children psychologically, Cassavetes implies, aren’t necessarily bad people. Sometimes they’re just people who aren’t perceptive enough to realize that children see the world very differently from the way they do. That Harmon understands this, that he even lectures his son about the differences between a man and a boy, in no way absolves him from the charges that he’s a bad father. Indeed, after Sarah blows into town, giving her brother a useful house sitter, he takes the boy to Las Vegas, a trip he had already planned, and leaves him alone in a hotel room while he goes out partying.
After Harmon drops his son back off at his mother’s house, where he’s beaten to a pulp by her new husband for reasons that are, once again, never entirely explained, the focus of the narrative shifts back to his relationship with Sarah. If Harmon never quite learned to distinguish between adults and children, we have (up until now) had an equally difficult time figuring out who exactly Sarah is. Harmon’s been involved with so many women, and Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands look so different, that we hadn’t realized they were brother and sister. Robert and Sarah, the film hints, never quite established themselves as individuals. They’re stuck inside a destructive cycle of psychological incest. If Sarah can’t quite let go of her ex-husband, follow the advice of her therapist and get herself in another sexual relationship, it seems to have little to do with the husband. He’s a colorless, insignificant character who barely registers. Instead, Cassavetes implies, Sarah is on a downward spiral because she’s stuck in the same family dynamics that turned her brother into a drunk and a sex addict. What are they? We never find out. Love Streams has no neat resolution, no sudden twists or revelations. Sarah just crashes into her brothers house and continues her downward spiral.
Does it work?
As a character study it probably does. As a film, I found it tedious, badly paced, and, at times, a crushing bore. My main criticism of the last hour of Love Streams is that, unlike the shorter narrative arc involving Harmon and his son, the second half of the film gives us no perspective outside of Sarah and Robert. They talk. And they talk. Then they talk some more. Sarah goes to a small farm and comes back with a small menagerie of animals. The man driving them all home in a Taxi cab doesn’t seem to notice that he’s transporting a crazy woman and a small zoo. Sarah goes bowling. She takes a drunken flop, one of the many drunken flops the film puts on screen. She picks up a man. We don’t learn very much about him. She comes back home. She and her brother talk some more.
It’s boring. At least I got bored. Had Cassavetes kept the focus on Harmon’s relationship with his son, had he established the little by as the film’s moral and emotional center, I think it would have been a better movie. That doesn’t mean you’ll agree. Indeed, I wouldn’t be writing about Love Streams at all if I didn’t think everybody should see it at least once. This isn’t a Batman film, the kind of cultural dreck that pollutes the discourse. It’s rarely seen independently funded movie made as a labor of love, not to make money. So get a copy of the film and make up your own mind. Love Streams is a deeply personal experience.