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This House Is Not a Home: On John Cassavetes’ Troubled Families

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John Cassavetes, when discussing the philosophy of his films, said “All I am interested in is love.” He talked about his need to “analyze it, discuss it, kill it” with a fierce intensity, as if love is an elusive wild animal, forever out of grasp. In examining the conventions of romantic love, Cassavetes returns again and again to the idea of the home and what it means for human beings to be tied together in relationships that are fundamentally predefined by society. He dissects the American family and finds the struggle to even look at one another on a daily basis underneath the all-smiling portrait. His three films Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Love Streams (1984) are scenes of families in peril, though the danger manifests itself in markedly different ways.

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Faces (1968)

A home could be threatened by external as well as internal forces. Faces revolves around a deteriorating marriage where both parties desire to find someone new. After Richard Forst (John Marley) becomes involved with a younger woman, Jeannie (Gena Rowlands), and announces that he wants a divorce, his wife, Maria (Lynn Carlin), also turns to a young man for comfort. In A Woman Under the Influence, however, Mabel (Gena Rowlands) and her mental illness endanger the relationship with her husband Nick (Peter Falk) as well as the happiness of her own family. With Love Streams, the director’s magnum opus, a happy home does not even exist. A pair of siblings, Sarah Lawson (Gena Rowlands) and Robert Harmon (John Cassavetes), reunite after the failures of their respective marriages, but their efforts to rebuild their familial relationship are strenuous at best.

The actual houses in the three films prove to be telling visual backdrops. Interestingly enough, Faces and Love Streams are both filmed in the Cassavetes’ L.A. home, which provides for fascinating extra textual readings. As Robert wanders through the narrow corridor in Love Streams (where Richard and Maria also passed 15 years prior in Faces), the audience is left to wonder whether the former’s dysfunctional life is the direct outcome of the couple’s refusal to confront their own marital disillusionment. The house is spacious, hence creating more opportunities for its inhabitants to drift further away from one another, as if the side effect of financial success is the disintegration of human relationships. In Faces, Richard possibly finds consolation in Jeannie’s tiny apartment whose confined structure forces people to squeeze in closer. Unlike having dinner with his wife, when Richard eats with Jeannie, they do not sit at a long, white table; they bring their food to bed, feeding each other while rolling around in loving embraces. Sarah of Love Streams tries to fill up the empty spaces in Robert’s mansion — quite literally — by purchasing a horde of animals and dragging them inside. Nevertheless, those outbursts are mere temporary solutions. While these characters could alter their surroundings, their emotional vacancies remain painfully untouched.

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A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Being of a lower economic status, the family in A Woman Under the Influence lives in a much smaller house, yet this only amplifies their troubles. Privacy is almost non-existent. Mabel and Nick’s bed is right next to their dining table, and the whole space is situated besides their living room. Their most intimate moments are left unprotected, much in the same way that Mabel’s larger-than-life persona is vulnerable in the face of social boundaries. Similar to their house, their marital life is jam-packed and laid bare under the scrutiny of others. Their marriage is in a glass tank, where Mabel’s every move could break her fragile home.

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Faces (1968)

Consequently, the characters in the three films often try to get out of their houses. They are tireless wanderers. In the beginning of A Woman Under the Influence, after hearing that Nick will be home late, Mabel puts on her coat and goes out. She walks aimlessly, her tiny figure pushed to the side of the frame, overshadowed by the harsh light from the street lamps and neon sights. Later, Mabel picks up a man and they come home, but it remains unclear whether a one night stand is really her original intention. Walking functions as a form of therapeutic exercise for Mabel, and she constantly does this throughout the film. The most memorable sequence is when she prances around in her backyard while her kids play inside. Arms widened, eyes closed, Mabel swings back and forth as the theme of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” sweeps over the screen. The effect is immense.

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A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

The touching moment is the calm before the storm, the break between her episodes, and her solitude inspires a defiant beauty. Others might not be comfortable with her behaviors, such as the father of her kids’ playmates who looks on her questioningly, but Mabel is completely at ease with herself. For Mabel, to leave the house is to shrug off its symbolic connotation of social expectations of her actions. Once outside, Mabel does not have to behave like a mother should behave. She can be herself.

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Love Streams (1984)

In Faces and Love Streams, the characters also wander, but their steps are decidedly more determined. They search for companionship, even when these discoveries only bring about disappointments. Robert of Love Streams goes from woman to woman, leaving his son locked in a hotel room while he goes out partying in Las Vegas. Trading paternal responsibilities for temporary sexual relations, Robert sees his actions culminating in tragedy; the next morning, when Robert drives his son home, the boy runs away from him in absolute terror.

Similarly, Richard of Faces steps into his new-found love for Jeannie, but not for long. His marital responsibility lassoes him back to Maria, and the ending image of the film is especially heartbreaking, since it offers no way out for the couple. Maria and Richard sit on the steps of their staircase, trapped. The screen remains still as these prisoners smoke their cigarettes and, one after another, get up and leave. Faces ends with the image of the empty staircase lingering on, signifying not only the death of their relationship but also the impossibility of feeling whole in a marriage.

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A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

If Faces finishes with an open wound, A Woman Under the Influence closes with Nick putting a band-aid on Mabel’s hand. She asks him, almost inaudibly, “Do you love me?” and he cannot answer in a full sentence. Instead, they go and clean up the mess that Mabel has just made. There is no doubt that Nick harbors an unconditional love for Mabel that goes against social prejudices, a love that encourages his wife to be herself. However, living with mental illness is an everyday struggle, and sometimes romantic love is not enough. What the audience sees in the final scene of A Woman Under the Influence is companionship, a dual coping mechanism; Mabel breaks things, and Nick is there to pick up the pieces.

Love Streams similarly undermines the importance of romantic passion. The original play describes Sarah and Robert as being incestuous, but this element is completely erased from the film, making their relationship much more complex. They cling on to each other, not out of sexual gratification, but from a mutual understanding that they are both deeply broken people. The film is filled with quiet but monumental moments such as when the siblings dance next to the jukebox or when Robert gently carries Sarah up from the floor after she faints. The camera always stays still, capturing these images as if they are family portraits. Love Streams is not about the possibility of Sarah recreating a new home as she leaves with another boyfriend. Instead, its significance lies in the triumph of a platonic familial relationship over romantic love.

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Love Streams (1984)

“Do you believe that love is a continuous stream?” This is the question that haunts Sarah throughout Love Streams. John Cassavetes would probably answer this with an astounding “yes,” but love itself is not enough to build a lasting home. Faces, A Woman Under the Influence and Love Streams deconstruct the erotic of romantic love and substitute it with an emphasis on understanding, communication and companionship. The home in Cassavetes’ films is always on wire, unbalanced and ready to tip over. Watching these characters pulling their lives together ultimately brings a sense of emotional gratification, as unspoken feelings are spiraled into motion.

Phuong Le (@smallnartless) studies film at Manhattanville College and interns at Film Comment. Her writings can be found at Movie Mezzanine as well as her own blog, Cinematic Gloom. When not writing, she enjoys caring too much about David Bowie.

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