When John Cassavetes’ final major work, Love Streams, hit theaters, the American indie film movement—a community that would come to claim Cassavetes as a major influence and referent—was still nascent. It was August 1984. Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise had won the Camera D’Or at Cannes just a few months earlier, and Utah’s U.S. Film Festival had just rebranded itself as the Sundance Film Festival. Steven Soderbergh was gearing up to shoot a Yes concert video, Hal Hartley was making his first short film, and Quentin Tarantino had just started shooting My Best Friend’s Birthday, a comedy that he would work on in piecemeal over the next three years, but which would never see completion.
“Independent” connotes solitude—a solitary film that reflects an individual vision, made and possibly distributed through means other than the commercial studio system. Of course, pure independents are few and far between. Much of Cassavetes’ work doesn’t fit the second half of the above definition; Love Streams, for one, was financed and distributed by Cannon Films, the ’80s B-movie factory run by cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus.
Conversely, few contemporary indies fit the first part. The irony of the independent film boom—and the reason why “independent” has, over time, been defanged into “indie”—is that it took off by forming a community based on shared influences and narrative and aesthetic values. For many viewers, “indie” means a specific set of tropes and trends, geared for a specific audience.
Considering how stubborn and single-minded he could be, Cassavetes was a remarkably unorthodox filmmaker. Love Streams—which is both his most rigidly constructed work, and his most unpredictable—is a testament to this. It neither follows rules nor invents new ones, creating what critic Dennis Lim—writing in the booklet which accompanies Criterion’s new dual-format release—calls “a world of permanent flux.” Wrenching drama shares the screen with surreal comedy, and fisheye lens dream sequences cut into long, static takes where one speaker in a conversation is framed out; not every approach works equally well, but they add up to a masterpiece. (“A work without flaws is a work without ambition,” writes James Gray in an appreciation of Apocalypse Now published in this week’s Rolling Stone. The statement applies just as well to Love Streams.)
It’s as though Cassavetes’ preoccupation with how and why relationships endure—expressed here through the reunion of a hard-drinking playboy (Cassavetes) and a batty divorcee (Gena Rowlands), who are only later revealed to be brother and sister—trumps any sense of convention. (Sometimes, it’s just plain weird; this is the movie that turns a character’s hallucination of a dog turning into a naked, bearded man into a cathartic moment.) It is a freeform movie of clear and unwavering purpose, where very little is explained, nothing is expected, and nothing feels out of place.
Love Streams is an emotional labyrinth, framed mostly around doorframes; its two protagonists wander through an endless succession of dim kitchens, pantries, and hallways, occasionally finding each other, but more often than not encountering other wanderers who seem equally lost and can’t help guide them out. The closest thing it develops to a formal rule is the equation of interior space and emotional space—but even that, it plays fast and loose with. The only true constant is the characters’ need to love and be loved—a simple-sounding subject which reveals its complexity through Cassavetes and Rowlands’ impassioned, heightened, not-quite-naturalistic performances.
Thirty years on, it feels like the movie American independent cinema needs, and one that it probably couldn’t produce. It’s easy to take the “mystical” position, and declare Cassavetes’ work a once-in-a-blue-moon phenomenon. There’s a fair amount of truth to that; after all, no one else could’ve or would’ve made Love Streams. But today’s American film landscape has a severe shortage of “no one else” movies. They don’t have to be this good; it’s more than likely that few of them will be.
Love Streams is available on Blu-ray and DVD through Criterion.