The electric filmmaking genius John Cassavetes and his brilliant wife and collaborator Gena Rowlands give luminous, fragile performances as two closely bound, emotionally wounded characters who reunite after years apart. Exhilarating and risky, mixing sober realism with surreal flourishes, Love Streams is a remarkable film that comes at the viewer in a torrent of beautiful, erratic feeling. This inquiry into the nature of love in all its forms was Cassavetes’s last truly personal work.
I believe in the Criterion brand. I like what they stand for. I enjoy reviewing Criterion titles that I've never heard of so I can be introduced to something new. Two consistencies come from blindly volunteering to review unknown Criterion Blu-rays: the Blu-rays always carry fantastic video and audio qualities and include a slew of quality special features, and there's always something noteworthy about the filmmaking itself – be it the direction, the acting, the editing, the writing or the bold subject matter. Once again, these consistencies hold true with John Cassavetes' 1984 picture 'Love Streams' – the Blu-ray is immaculate and the film carries strong and unique qualities – only I didn't care for the film itself at all.
Before watching 'Love Streams,' I cracked open the obligatory included Criterion booklet and read Cassavetes' New York Times essay that was published when the film opened. Reading about how the film came about made me excited to see the evolved-from-stage creative final product. The way that the director/actor described his film in the essay was elegant, painting a gorgeous picture that lead me to believe that it functioned with many layers beneath the obvious facade. I was already fawning over 'Love Streams' before even watching it, which truly set me up for disappointment right off the bat.
Have you ever heard an artist, filmmaker or musician explain a certain piece of their work, only to view, watch or listen to it yourself and think, 'I got something completely different out of that'? That was my experience with 'Love Streams,' a gritty, pretentious and uncomfortably heavy drama about a pair of siblings whose lives are equally in shambles at opposite ends of the spectrum. The late John Cassavetes cast his talented wife Gena Rowlands as his in-movie sister. The 141-minute slow-moving seemingly directionless indie drama follows them on their concurrent downward spirals of depression, heartbreak, despair and even madness.
Casavettes plays Robert Harmon, an author who initially appears to be a classy successful man. His false front quickly erodes to reveal that he's just as sleazy, debaucherous and inelegant as the trashy sex-filled novels that he writes. He worships and objectifies females - even to the creepy and disturbing point of borderline rape - and detests males. The only things that he cares for are his woman, but that's really only because they offer him pleasure. He's a selfish man with no moral boundaries. Rowlands plays Sarah Lawson, Robert's frail, neurotic and impulsive sister whose husband is divorcing her and daughter wants nothing to do with her. After losing them both in divorce court, she starts her nosedive descent to rock bottom.
The first lengthy third of the film explores each of their lives individually. The second act establishes their lives together. And the final act reveals how their individual dark scenarios parallel one another. 'Love Streams' is the type of film that leaves you satiating for more. There is no payoff. Perhaps you'll pull a grand existential life lesson from its pretentious preaching, but I didn't.
As expected, Criterion's Blu-ray is gorgeous and the style of the film itself is what makes it worthy of the Criterion treatment. After watching 'Love Streams,' I believe it to be the influence behind David Lynch's 'Mulholland Drive.' I'm no student of Lynch nor Cassavetes, but the similarities between the two are undeniable. Both pictures start out as average films. Partway through 'Love Streams,' an unusual – yet absolutely gorgeous – musical number divides the normality from the unexplainable and incoherent madness that follows. Just like 'Mulholland,' it abruptly ends with viewers left scratching their heads.
I enjoy a good strange indie film, but it has to serve a purpose. If I can't decipher the main meaning without spending an hour doing online research, then the film failed to make its point. On top of that, working against that same level of unnecessary wackiness, many of the symbolic images and objects throughout 'Love Streams' are so blatant and obvious that they feel like we're being hit over the head with them. I understand what Cassavetes was going for and I truly enjoyed the technical style that he applied to 'Love Streams,' but I'll never watch it again and will only recommend it to the die-hard lovers of wild, snobby, incoherent independent films - which I am in no way picking on because I love my fair share.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion has given 'Love Streams' a dual-format release that includes one BD-50 and two DVDs, as well as a booklet containing an essay about 'Love Streams' by Dennis Lim, an article about the film written by Cassavetes himself and Criterion's technical specs about the transfer. Criterion has continued to use their bulky clear keepcases for this three-disc release. The Blu-ray and booklet are housed in the left panel of the open case and the two DVDs are layered over the right panel. Nothing plays before the movie's main menu. It's worth noting that while the film itself carries a PG-13 rating, it contains something of R-rated quality: the opening sequence shows a few nude woman showing together.
Remastered with 2K resolution from the film's original 35 mm negative, 'Love Streams' carries a fantastic 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 presentation in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Colors are bright and punchy, even more so than real life. Fleshtones are natural. Black levels are consistently strong. Bands, aliasing and artifacts are absent.
Being a raw film with a gritty shooting style, objects aren't always entirely in focus. At times, objects or people are shot with a high amount of zoom, so – for example – an actor's nose may be in perfect focus, but his/her ears are not. Natural lighting can detract from sharpness and detail, but if you look at what's in focus, the texture and detail is pretty amazing for a 30-year-old low budget film. If an actors' hairs are in focus, you can follow the sharp fine line of a single strand to the point where it begins to move into the blurry out-of-focus area.
The cleanliness of the picture is actually quite astonishing. I didn't notice a single scratch, specs or piece of debris during the film's bloated runtime. Not one. The occasional use of DNR could be spotted, but nothing too obvious or distracting. Edge enhancement didn't appear to be needed at all to obtain this rich quality.
'Love Streams' contains an uncompressed mono Linear PCM track that was remastered from the film's original 35 mm magnetic audio track at 24-bit. Just like the video quality, the sound is absolutely clear and void of aging. There's no trace of deterioration in any aspect of the monaural track. The vocals and music are the most dominant aspects. It never sounds warped, warbly or unsteady. There also aren't any clicks, pops or thumps. The audio is just as clear as the video.
The flat feel of mono tracks usually becomes apparent over time, but that's not the case with 'Love Streams.' Despite having an ear tuned to dynamic audio, the mono track never became mundane during my viewing experience. The track also never felt congested. The music, vocals and effects never felt like they were fighting to be the foremost sound. The audio mix in general is very raw. The attributes of the areas filmed can be heard in the quality of the track. For example, when walking down a long wooden hallway, the echo of the space can be heard in the dialog. And when someone turns over the engine of a car while talking, the engine sounds naturally trump the vocals. As the film spins into madness, so does the audio track. Even though I don't admire the picture itself, I appreciate what it did with its sound.
Title number 721 in the Criterion Collection is 'Love Streams,' an indie picture from John Cassavetes that is definitely not a household title – and there's a reason for that. The late actor/director's 1984 film is an odd one, worthy of comparing to a wildly unpredictable and not-so-easily discernible films of David Lynch. While I'm not onboard with this seemingly directionless and bloated picture, it's technical merits are what make it worthy of joining The Collection. The remastered video and audio qualities are fantastic, as are the hours of (mostly) new special features. For those who love Cassavetes (and Lynch) and adore Criterion releases, this one is for you. For the rest of us, I recommend checking it out before making the decision to purchase.