John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands play brother and sister in Cassavetes’ 1984 film Love Streams, and it says a lot about the film’s stalwart resistance to conventionality that that piece of information should come with a spoiler warning. They play the two main characters, Robert Harmon and Sarah Lawson, and their relationship is the heart and soul of the movie, carrying with it Cassavetes and Rowlands’ long history together as collaborators in life and art. But as a narrative strategy, developing Robert and Sarah individually for nearly 90 minutes before revealing how they relate is extraordinarily bold and commercially reckless as only Cassavetes could be. (In the hourlong documentary on the new Criterion edition, Cassavetes remarks to his producer, the late Cannon Films head Menahem Golan, “I’m very proud of this picture. And probably you, too, because nobody else would make it.”) It’s tempting to say there’s method to his madness, but really the reverse is true: Madness is the method, and Cassavetes films like Love Streams are as much found as made, the result of a messy process of discovery.
Though based on a play by his friend Ted Allan—one he staged first with Jon Voight in the role Cassavetes took—Cassavetes continually rewrote Love Streams to the point where Allan didn’t recognize his own work on screen. Heading into production, Cassavetes learned that he had cirrhosis of the liver, and though he kept it a secret, he had reason to believe that this would be his last movie. Cassavetes would survive to make one more film, the 1986 for-hire debacle Big Trouble, yet in all but the most technical sense, Love Streams feels like a closing argument—a tragicomic, go-for-broke celebration of life and love that ties together his entire body of work. There doesn’t appear to be much of an organizing principle at play here, at least not a visible one, and Cassavetes chucks a lot of the continuity that other narrative features manage more carefully. He was the last director anyone could accuse of letting perfect be the enemy of good.
Wearing a tuxedo in a secluded home filled with beautiful young women—the reasons for the tux, the women, and the money he keeps paying out in checks are all unclear—Robert cuts the image of a playboy, a heavy drinker who never sleeps alone and rarely with the same woman. Love Streams catches him at a time of transition, however, as he’s seeing Susan (Diahnne Abbott), a lounge singer, and has the 8-year-old son of his second marriage dropped at his doorstep. Meanwhile, Sarah is going through a divorce with her husband Jack (Seymour Cassel)—in contrast to Rowlands and Cassel's pairing in Cassavetes’ 1971’s Minnie & Moskowitz, the director breaks them up here—and she’s stung by her daughter’s unexpected decision to stay with her father. Left unmoored and unhinged by the custody battle, Sarah moves into Robert’s house, and the siblings try to take care of each other while barely managing to take care of themselves.
The brilliance of Love Streams stems from Cassavetes’ decision to limit the amount of time Robert and Sarah spend on screen together, because he can express how lost they are individually and how powerful they are as a team. Some of their scenes have an almost unbearable tenderness to them, like a lonely consolatory dance in front of a jukebox or a shot where Robert, off-screen, extends his hand into Sarah’s embrace across a table. Others are outrageously comic, like Sarah’s impulsive decision to give Robert some company by bringing home a slew of adopted farm animals, led by two miniature horses and a goat. It’s a crazy thing to do, but it’s a Cassavetes kind of crazy, and thus not remotely out of line. Robert’s slack-jawed expression as Sarah walks the animals to his front stoop is a great punchline, but he doesn’t question it or kick them out. He keeps the door open.
And with that, Love Streams offers a metaphor for the Cassavetes way, which is about letting in as much life as a film can accommodate. There are subplots that come and go, like Robert’s romance with Susan or the lost son that he takes along on a wild night in Vegas, only to hand him back to the boy’s abusive father. There are moments and sequences that are wholly unexpected, like Sarah flipping off a diving board or a full children’s dance recital that comes out of nowhere. But the thrill of Love Streams is being carried along with it, as it wends and winds, wherever the current leads. It’s as odd and improbable an American movie as the 1980s ever produced.
An early champion of Cassavetes’ work when he was a critic at L.A. Weekly, Michael Ventura was invited onto the set of Love Streams to chronicle its production. His 60-minute promotional documentary for Cannon, “I’m Almost Not Crazy...,” is included in the supplements, but his book, Cassavetes Directs: John Cassavetes And The Making Of Love Streams, wasn’t published until 2008. Nevertheless, his commentary track here is wonderful, informed equally by his appreciation of Cassavetes’ art and his presence on set, which supplies him with an nonstop series of great quotes and anecdotes. (Cassavetes on the thought of people catching up with his movies on VHS: “If they didn’t come to see us in theaters, fuck ’em.”) Ventura reserves a special affection for Rowlands, whose intensity on set he describes as “like a force field in a sci-fi movie,” but who was tremendously kind when she was out of her trance.
The other supplements include interviews with three Cassavetes collaborators: Longtime cinematographer Al Ruban, who fondly recalls their low- and no-wage beginnings; Abbott, who was giddy to work for a director whose films she always rushed to see on opening night; and Cassel, who praises the freedom Cassavetes gave actors to behave as they would in real life. Ventura’s “I’m Almost Not Crazy...” loosens up the conventional making-of doc form, and offers raw footage of Cassavetes on set or in meetings with the gregarious Golan. Sheila O’Malley’s insightful visual essay “Watching Gena Rowlands” rounds out the set by focusing on Rowlands’ collaborations with Cassavetes. Though Rowlands played many unsettled and unhappy characters, O’Malley says the actress left them “unresolved,” and believes that she had hope for them.