Love Streams

(1984)

by D. B. Bates, Editor-in-Chief

From 1979-1993, the Cannon Group — headed by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — released a string of surprisingly successful low-budget films. They made stars of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, they lured bigger stars like Sylvester Stallone and Charles Bronson into their company, and they glommed onto huge franchise properties like Masters of the Universe, Superman, and Spider-Man. Despite the financial success of the films, the company almost always ran at a loss, and Cannon’s insistence on the lowest possible budget yielded bizarre but uniquely charming films. The goal of Cannon Corner is to pay homage to these films.

Somewhere around the time the press started calling them “schlockmeisters,” Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus decided to expand their low-budget action empire into new, bizarre realms. They made a series of children’s films based on the works of Hans Christian Andersen, hard-hitting documentaries, and art films. They teamed up with the likes of Robert Altman, Sam Shepard, Jean-Luc Godard, Norman Mailer, Charles Bukowski, and Katharine Hepburn. Perhaps the first in this wave of art films was 1984’s Love Streams, based on the play by Canadian writer Ted Allan.

John Cassavetes did not make easy films to watch, and Love Streams is no exception. Like most of Cassavetes’s work, the film has very little in the way of plot and more than enough in the way of brutal, intense character study. Despite a slightly higher budget than he normally worked with (thought not by much — Cannon Films was not known for busting the budget on anything, especially not a challenging art film), it retains the rawness of his earlier, self-financed work. It’s the sort of movie that will make virtually anyone watching it disappointed in humanity, but that’s only because it’s so easy to believe characters like this exist in reality.

Cassavetes plays Robert Harmon, who dresses like a lounge lizard circa 1972: mussed hair, rumpled (possibly stained — hard to tell with VHS) tuxedo, sun-blasted face, and an ever-present cigarette dangling ineffectually from his cracked and craggy lips. Despite the earmarks of the saddest sack in the universe, Robert is a successful author of smutty novels aimed at women he eagerly beds. One of the recurring themes of the film revolves around Robert’s belief only in sex, without any of the romantic notions of love. This philosophy permeates his writing, but women mistake what he writes for romance, which fuels his disbelief in the idea of love. What we’re led to believe are graphic depictions of sex laden with violence and depravity cause fluttering in the hearts of his female readers, and in his mind, anyone who mistakes what he’s writing for romance deserves the drunken one-night stand he gives her.

A funny thing happens when he meets Susan (Diahnne Abbott), a dancer who resists his charms to the point that he literally shoves her into her own car and hops in the driver’s seat. He drives like a drunken maniac, crashes into a parked car, and nearly passes out. Despite this, he refuses to let go of the steering wheel. Even as Susan beats on him and tries to shove the larger, stronger man aside, he simply grips the wheel and laughs. Susan puts up with this abuse with gentle good humor and quickly turns into a codependent pseudo-lover.

Meanwhile, Sarah Lawson (Gena Rowlands) has lost custody of her disdainful daughter (Risa Blewitt) because — well, for lack of a better term, she’s nuts. She explains away her frequent hospitalizations as voluntary vacations from the stresses of the world. She pleads with the judge that she knows when she’s about to have a bout with insanity, so she checks herself into the hospital to take care of it. Somehow, the judge sides with her husband (an almost unrecognizable Seymour Cassel). On the advice of her sleazy lawyer, she travels to Europe, gets lost, and has trouble finding her way back home. Eventually, she ends up moving into the horrendously unattractive estate of Robert — her brother.

Robert’s not ready to take care of his unstable sister. In fact, while she’s off gallivanting in Europe, he gets a weekend with his estranged son (Jakob Shaw), Albie. He hasn’t seen little Albie since infancy, so naturally he drives the eight-year-old to Las Vegas, leaves Albie alone in a cheap hotel room while he goes off to “spend the night” with “a friend,” and is surprised when Albie runs away as soon as they get back to Los Angeles. Lucky for Robert, Sarah isn’t ready to be taken care of. Her signs of increasing instability go ignored by Robert, who cohabitates with her like an unfriendly roommate. Only occasionally do tempers flare.

Like most of Cassavetes’s films, Love Streams remains largely unpleasant to endure for the majority of its runtime — until a riveting third act that combines surrealism, music, and ballet in a powerful dream sequence that puts any individual moment in Black Swan to shame. (Note: I didn’t choose to watch Love Streams this week to crap all over Black Swan again. I’ve never seen the film before and had no idea to expect such a sequence.) As disturbing as it is tragic, it provides a powerful glimpse into Sarah’s fragile psyche before crashing her back to reality, where Robert responds to her elation at having solved her family problems by barking, “Is this real, or did you dream it?!”

The third act contains more surprises, revelations, and general weirdness than perhaps all the previous Cassavetes films combined. It makes Love Streams worth enduring, even (perhaps especially) for non-fans of his work. He fully embraces his passion for music and his tendency toward experimental, surreal imagery while keeping everything grounded in his usual stomach-churning, nihilistic neo-realism. Although worth seeing, it’s not easy to see. It saw a brief DVD release in France, which currently fetches anywhere between $50 and $150 online. VHS copies aren’t much cheaper. Luckily, Chicago’s invaluable Facets Multimedia has it available for rent, which is how I got to see it. If you live in Chicago, check it out, but beware their $200 lost/damaged fine for antique VHS tapes.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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