What’s in a name? Will Noah deconstructs the title of Cassavetes’ final film.

Love Streams

Love Streams.

The title to John Cassavetes’ 1984 swan song fits the film as perfectly as any title could possibly fit a Cassavetes film; which is to say firmly but incompletely, for what string of words could ever contain the vast, teeming expanses of life Cassavetes presents in his work?  Faces is about a good deal more than faces, but faces act as a window into the realms that the film explores.  The Killing of a Chinese Bookie depicts the titular event, but the stiff objectivity of the title fails to encompass the metaphysical rifts that Cassavetes tears open within the fabric of the film.  But while these titles provide straightforward entryways into the films they only begin to describe, Love Streams demands interrogation.

The title appears incomplete.  Perhaps hearing it pronounced aloud would clarify whether we’re dealing with noun-verb (emphasis on “streams”) or adjective-plural-noun (emphasis on “love”).  It cries out for punctuational clarification, be it exclamatory (Love Streams!), epistolary (Love, Streams), or, most appropriately as it turns out, inquisitive (Love Streams?).  Perhaps it’s a typo: Cassavetes really meant to branch out into the far reaches of Dadaism (Glove Streams), or perhaps make an attempt at summing up his entire oeuvre (Love Screams).

Having seen the film, I’m not sure there’s only one appropriate way to read the title.  In the interest of science, however, let’s take the noun-verb form as our hypothesis.  We are examining love, observing its effects on two principal subjects (species: human; relation: sibling), to see how it will behave.  Our hypothesis: it will stream.

“Love is a stream,” declares Sarah Lawson (Gena Rowlands), “It’s continuous. It doesn’t stop.”  Sarah’s declaration raises more questions than answers.  “My love is a stream” would be easier to get a handle on: here’s the self-characterization of a bleeding heart.  But as it stands, the statement constitutes a philosophy, speaking of love as a universal force.  Armchair Socratics will no doubt waste little time pointing out the obvious problem with such a statement: streams flow in one direction, while we generally like to think that our love is reciprocated, at least sometimes.  Is Sarah’s philosophy a solipsistic one then, viewing her love as the universal love?  Maybe, but that doesn’t mean it might ring equally true for someone else.

The statement sounds eye-rollingly transcendental at first: love never stops.  Gimme a break.  But look at it another way: streams might never stop, but whatever floats down them—driftwood, garbage, people, youth, etc.—never floats back.  Is the love stream a wave or a particle?  I think we might need to narrow the scope of our inquiry.

So, hypothesis: Love Streams.  Well, does it?  Step one: identify subject.  Love definitely exists within Cassavetes’ world, though it can be hard to distinguish from imposters.  Sarah’s brother Robert Harmon (Cassavetes) spends much of the film surrounded by women, and says “I love you” to a lot of them, but we quickly detect the presence of that perennial wolf in sheep’s clothing: lust.  Closer to Sarah’s philosophy is Robert’s son Albie, who declares his love for his father after he has taken him to Vegas and left him alone in the hotel room to go get laid.  One minute the kid’s so anxious to get away from his dad that he bashes his head open on his mom’s front door, the next he’s declaring his love for him, blood flowing down his forehead.  Like blood, love’s stream is inexorable; it can’t be stopped by even the most deadbeat of dads.  And then there’s Sarah, whose love for her estranged husband and child resembles extreme psychosis, prompting twin dream sequences that constitute the film’s terrifying, hilarious, and moving climax.

It would seem that Sarah’s hypothesis holds true at least for children and herself—makes sense, she often acts like a child, at one point buying out an entire pet store—but what about her love for her brother?  And how about his love for her?  This two-way stream (anti-stream?) is perhaps the most mysterious in the film.  Robert appears overjoyed to see Sarah, then repeatedly leaves her as soon as he returns home.  Yet he flings himself whole-heartedly into taking care of her and the animals after she falls ill, even begging her not to leave.  Sarah, in the film’s conclusion, abandons the brother who loves her, at least for the moment, in favor of the husband and child she’s supplanted in reality with dream visions.  Love’s stream must be an awfully bendy and circuitous one.

Well, in conclusion, does love stream?  Uh, sometimes, yes.  Which is hardly the conclusion that Sarah’s philosophy seems to demand.  She’s wrong in at least one respect: the stream does occasionally stop, or is at least submerged.  The film’s final shot frames Robert in his house through the window as rain drips down the pane.  Here, the visual streaming of the water runs along the surface that divides him from his sister, and the audience.  If one is on land, streams are generally viewed as a divider and not a connector.  What does that say about interpersonal connection?  Hmm, our experiment seems to have broken down.  The subjects have been contaminated by the intricacies and contradictions of reality; Cassavetes Laboratories are revolutionary at least partially for their poor insulation.  Well, I think we can say with certainty that love does something.  It streams sometimes, but it also cuts, bruises, and burns.  And plenty of things stream as well: we’ve seen blood, water, and I haven’t even mentioned time.  So, uh, I guess the best we can say is Love _____s and ________ Streams, but further testing will be required before it can be determined with statistical accuracy whether love does, in fact, stream.