DVD Review: Love Streams

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: John Cassavetes | CAST: Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes, Seymour Cassel, Margaret Abbott, Jakob Shaw, Diahnne Abbott
RELEASE DATE: 8/12/14 | PRICE: Blu-ray/DVD Combo $39.95; DVD $29.95
BONUSES: audio commentary by journalist Michael Ventura, new interviews with producer Al Ruban and Diahnne Abbott, vintage interview with Seymour Cassel, “Watching Gena Rowlands” visual essay, “I’m Almost Not Crazy” documentary
SPECS: PG-13 | 141 min. | Drama | 1:85 widescreen | monaural

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

 

An incredibly difficult work to categorize (or even describe), Love Streams has for the past two decades been the one missing title among John Cassavetes’ (Too Late Blues) eight “personal” films. It was released on VHS by MGM/UA more than a quarter-century ago, but fans of the iconic independent filmmaker have been waiting for a “prestige” treatment of the film. And now, finally, here it is.

This dual-format set (two DVDs, one Blu-ray) does justice to Cassavetes’ exquisitely messy 1984 tale of love and craziness, which blends everyday reality and the fantastic, continuing on from Opening Night (in which a dead character’s ghost appears in certain scenes). Love Streams includes dreams, fantasies and even a bit of magical realism.

The plot moves along two parallel lines, the first involving Sarah (Gena Rowlands), a woman undergoing a mental and emotional crisis over the end of her marriage and the fact that her teenage daughter doesn’t love her. The other plot strand concerns Robert (Cassavetes), a writer who is ignoring his own crises with a haze of alcohol and indiscriminate sex.

The characters reunite about an hour into the film, but Cassavetes conceals their relationship (they are brother and sister) for another half-hour — right before they both embark on a very weird project, involving collecting animals and a giant rainstorm.

Love Streams is thus a very incident-filled but loosely structured picture. The thing that makes it so compelling, and rewatchable, are the performances by the two leads and a top-notch supporting cast of both professionals (Seymour Cassel, Diahnne Abbott) and non-actors recruited by Cassavetes.

Love Streams movie scene

John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands star in Cassavetes's Love Streams.

Although the proceedings veer off into fantasy and dramatic moments that can’t be easily situated (with characters we barely know and locations we will never see again), Cassavetes anchors the film with a handful of sequences that are simply heartbreaking, including the scene that gives the movie its title, where Sarah argues with her psychiatrist that love is a stream that doesn’t end.

The single oddest thing about the film is that it was one of the “prestige” productions undertaken by the late Yoram Globus and the late Menahem Golan to boost the profile of their Cannon Films. Cassavetes thus had a low but still substantial (for him) budget for this personal work, which — along with Altman’s Fool For Love — is the best thing to ever come from the producers best known for The Delta Force.

Among the many informative supplements included here are new interviews with Al Ruban, a central collaborator on many of Cassavetes’ best films, and costar Diahnne Abbott (The King of Comedy), who discusses how John rewrote the film while it was in production, eliminating her character’s final scenes. Her solution was to write a goodbye scene herself and present it to Cassavetes, who promptly had it shot (with visiting friend Peter Bogdanovich serving as director) and included it in the final cut of the film.

The visual essay “Watching Gena Rowlands” by critic Sheila O’Malley is a discussion of the ways in which Rowlands’ acting under Cassavetes’ direction was a sublime expression of Seventies feminism. O’Malley notes how the mainstream feminist films of that era have dated, while Cassavetes’ films have not.

The most intriguing, and infinitely sad, aspect of Love Streams is that Cassavetes was suffering from cirrhosis and had been told by doctors during the production that he had five months to live. Seymour Cassel addresses this in a 2008 interview, in which he notes that John turned down a proposed liver transplant (he was apparently quite phobic about hospitals).

The audio commentary by journalist Michael Ventura, who was present during most of the film shoot, explores this in depth. Ventura contends that Cassavetes made Love Streams believing it was to be his last film. (He in fact wound up living five more years and directing a comedy, Big Trouble, at the request of Peter Falk).

Ventura also discusses how Cassavetes films comprise “a cinema of alcohol.” He never directly states that this habit wound up killing Cassavetes, but adept listeners may see a connection — especially when Ventura notes that the filmmaker rewrote the script to make his character more like himself.

Ventura’s commentary is chockfull of interesting behind-the-scenes information — including the fact that Cassel was on probation from a prison stay at the time of the filming — but the biggest service that he did Cassavetes cultists was his 1984 hour-long documentary I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes, the Man and His Work, which is included here. The film is one of the best primers on Cassavetes’ work and his offscreen personality.

When the documentary was made, the five films now available from Criterion (in the box John Cassavetes: Five Films) were extremely hard to see in the U.S. Ventura takes care to not only offer ample on-set footage of Love Streams, but shows key sequences from four of those features and has Cassavetes discuss his philosophies of love and filmmaking, his feelings for his wife/collaborator/muse Rowlands and how he likes to confound audience expectation.

There are several great quotes from Cassavetes in the docu, but the most colorful one comes from composer and sound mixer Bo Harwood, who delighted in working on Love Streams, saying “Thirty years from now, I can say I rode with Billy the Kid….”

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”