(John Cassavetes, USA, 1984)
Cassavetes' valedictory masterpiece, anguished and freewheeling, intensely imagined and intimately fractured. My longtime misapprehension, formed by film-school screenings of Shadows and Faces, was to count Cassavetes as a homegrown Neorealist, when he has always been a lavish, formally daring symbolist and emotional impressionist. The early, raw work gave way over the years to Cassavetes insatiable imagination, which combined with modest budgets produced a wholly new style. Today, it's everywhere, so ubiquitous that it hides in plain sight, showing up in filmmakers from Martin Scorsese to Wes Anderson, from Andrew Bujalski to Noah Baumbach. More than mere style - although that's there, too - it's the attitude that we should recognize, the discovery of volumes of emotion in forthright deployment of the tools of cinema: a camera, a face, a line of dialogue. Cassavetes' cinema is the cinema of independence, but as spiritual ideal more than economic reality.
Love Streams is a culmination, embodying all of Cassavetes' personal and aesthetic concerns. It's the tale of a triumphant survivor, made by a man who was close to dying. As the story unfolds, Cassavetes' ruthless self-exposure and sputtering ecstasies nearly rend the film in two; but there is a serenity at the center that is as moving as it is surprising. Rowlands is typically magnificent as the radiant, fragile Sarah Lawson, who mirrors her brother's hopelessly shambling quest for love. As Robert Harmon, Cassavetes the man is uncomfortably present, portraying the artist as ludicrously selfish, arriving at the end of his rope and realizing that a lifetime of self-indulgence has left him with very close to nothing. He's ill, and it shows. And yet he's a live wire, undaunted in his pursuit of more life and more love.
There are moments along the way where I'll admit to confusion; the blunt realism of some scenes can refract dizzily in Cassavetes' symbolic prism. Harmon's shambolic suavity, and the ready indulgence of many of the women in his life (most of whom he pays) seem at times to reveal uncomfortable assumptions about gender relations. His drunken, aggressive pursuit of a lounge singer ends, incredibly, with his charming the pants (almost) off the singer's mother. This is after he has all but kidnapped her, and then cracked his head open on the sidewalk. She takes him in; her mother nurses his wounds.
And yet none of this is portrayed as the least bit admirable or attractive; Harmon is understood from the beginning as a more-than-slightly-ridiculous character. While his passions, and the seriousness with which he follows them, are never in doubt, he drifts through the world in a boozy, smoky haze, spouting dubious epigrams about love, women, and secrets. His ubiquitous tuxedo becomes a kind of clown suit, tragic and idiotic at once. Against all of this is Sarah, his other half, a wreck in her own right but also the only hope Harmon has of finding substantive love, rather than the ersatz stuff he spins to sell his books (which have apparently made him pretty rich.)
The ending sequence, which is justly celebrated as a cinematic high point, coalesces like a cracked, late-Romantic symphony, in which brief flashes of tenderness can be spotted in a sea of mania and sorrow. Sarah, who understands and appropriately reveres love, doesn't have the emotional resources to weather its storms; Robert, learning too late the difference between pleasure and joy, scrambles to retrofit his life, but can't quite pull it off in time. It's a bittersweet, eloquent ending to a legendary career, crafted with dedication and not a little love.