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Of Love and Other Demons: ‘Love Streams’ (John Cassavetes, 1984)

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Loneliness, like a parasite, crawls up inside your chest and starts feeding off your sorrow. As it gets stronger and bigger, it can be as though your rib cage starts caving in, strangling your heart and lungs. That tightening feeling, for me, starts in the pit of my stomach, slowly working its way up to the back of my throat and eventually wrapping around my spine, pulling me down towards earth. The parasite begins speaking for you, moving for you. You’re trapped inside what used to be your body, but you’ve lost control.

Few films capture that absolutely aching feeling, but John Cassavetes’ Love Streams does. Ostensibly about two emotionally volatile siblings reunited after years apart (Cassavetes as Robert and Gena Rowlands as Sarah), the narrative captures the fundamentals of love and loneliness. The latter, like the common cold, has similar symptoms but rarely the same root cause. Whether borne out of fears of abandonment, romantic longing or alienation, these feelings can be difficult to handle alone, however you can also be surrounded by hundreds of people and still feel like a castaway — completely out of touch. The contrasting but perversely interconnected loneliness we feel as children, and then as adults, often feels inescapable. The scenes of Robert Lawson taking care of his son — completely and desperately out of touch with what it means to be a father — seem rooted in his own childhood. He’s not a cruel man, he just can’t handle love without strings, and the unconditional love of his child feels unbearable to him.

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Robert has an obsession with secrets. He insists on secrets from his young beautiful lovers and suggests that any unknown aspect of a partner might as well be dead. This insistence, rather than being hinged on truth, has roots in lies. Knowing that your lover used to be a nude model doesn’t reveal any truth about who they are, or how you love them. It is a means of not facing the other person, bonding you to them through shared information rather than shared love. Also, the unsaid rule highlights that Robert’s secrets and truths are too heavy for any one person to handle. Parts of him will always be dead, and he will never really find love.

I wonder if male viewers know that they could easily fall in love with Sarah. Of course, she often seems dangerously unhinged, but can men feel the goodness and beauty that lies beneath? Are men aware that they gravitate towards women that seem vulnerable? Cassavetes seems to understand the darker parts of humanity: lust, longing and the human condition. Sometimes what we want is not only bad for ourselves, but bad for the person we covet. Sarah doesn’t need another man, but then again, what will save her if not love?

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That vulnerability haunts me and haunts my experience of watching Love Streams. Far from a bad thing, it just becomes difficult to parse through. The impossible truth of the performances in Cassavetes’ work feels like a confrontation of the contradictions and fears that we try to hide from ourselves. The pain of watching his movies lies in the familiarity of the characters’ emotional chaos and how desperately liberated they are onscreen. Cassavetes’ films make me ache because I become acutely aware of what makes me feel angry, sad or lonely. They make me angry because it hurts me that Sarah can’t just hide that part of herself from the world… it makes me angry because I can’t help hiding it.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.

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