Bright Lights Film Journal

“Goodbye, John”: On John Cassavetes’ Swan Song, Love Streams (1984)

Illustration by Hudson Black

Note: Criterion has just released (August 12, 2014) Love Streams in a dual-format DVD/Blu-ray edition. See end of this article for details on extras.

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“Every picture should start at the ending. That’s where it really starts.” – John Cassavetes

John Cassavetes had been given six months to live before he started production on Love Streams in 1983. Although the movie ended up being the last he’d claim as his own, and included his last performance, death would not take him for six years.

Still, the end of Love Streams feels like the end of Cassavetes, as if he died right after the credits stopped rolling. There’s a heavy aura of death all over the last few scenes, but one moment in particular solidifies this feeling.

“You know, Gena, when John waves out the window? I think he was saying goodbye to us,” said Michael Ventura to Gena Rowlands after John died, referring to the last shot of the movie. So, the director, acting in his own film, steps out of character and, as his dying self, waves goodbye to the audience in the last footage ever shot of him? Under normal circumstances, this would seem like a stretch. But these were far from normal circumstances.

Cassavetes had hired Ventura, a columnist at LA Weekly, to write a book on the making of the movie. Present for nearly every day of the shoot, Ventura took incredibly detailed notes on every aspect of the production and put it all together in Cassavetes Directs: John Cassavetes and the Making of Love Streams – a remarkable record of the legendary filmmaker at work. Ventura was also hired to direct a behind-the-scenes documentary, which was eventually released as I’m Almost Not Crazy. But few were privy to the significant role Ventura played during the final days of production.

Love Streams is not just the pinnacle of Cassavetes’ lifework, but his fullest expression. The last few scenes are the culmination of this expression – bold, mysteriously powerful moments that complete an oeuvre of uncompromising cinema. Ventura documents a director on a strange mission, attempting to capture something elusive and difficult, and doing it with a lot of help, but, in another sense, all alone.

Early in production, Cassavetes said to Ventura, “This picture, I don’t know how, has gotten stuck in – I don’t know – the beauty of ordinariness. Camera work. We’ve got to get into the picture now, or we’re not going to have a movie.” What John Cassavetes considered a “movie” differed greatly from what his peers believed. Most filmmakers would be satisfied if the actors hit all their marks, the shots looked exactly like the storyboards, and the continuity person did her job perfectly, making for a smooth and easy time in the editing room. Cassavetes was not concerned with any of that. What’s more, he considered it all anathema to the production. This was a director who shunned what other directors were striving for when making a movie. But what did matter to him? A vulnerable purity in performance? The capturing of odd, brief moments that hold undefinable truth? Yes. But something more, something Cassavetes could never utter, and his trusted cast and crew could never figure out, but toward which he pushed them with unflinching drive.

Love Streams was filmed almost entirely in sequence, which afforded Cassavetes a view of the narrative as it was happening. Due perhaps to how he felt about what was already captured on film, or maybe because he was fearing his own end and wanted the movie’s ending to have some greater significance, he decided to veer far from the script toward the completion of production. A major party scene was cut out, one that would have tied events, characters, and situations together and sent the film to an orderly end. At that point, not the crew nor the cast, not Rowlands nor Ventura, no one knew what John was doing. Maybe not even John.

Cassavetes thrived on “not knowing”; he practically cultivated an atmosphere of it around himself at all times. He hired people for important jobs who had no idea how to do those jobs, specifically because they didn’t. He purposely threw actors off their game and got them into a place where they were uncomfortable. “The confusion of the action is the scene,” he told the actresses in the first days of shooting. Overthinking was not only something he tried to keep actors away from, it was something he tried hard to avoid himself. For John Cassavetes, it was all about intuition.

Bo Harwood, Cassavetes’ longtime music composer and sound recordist, remembers those final days of shooting; “Everyone was asked to do something. Everyone was asked to give something, in a sense.” But everyone was losing patience. There was still confusion over why they weren’t just filming the ending as it was in the script. Instead, Cassavetes was trying to “find” the ending. Ventura writes, “Especially since he discarded Love Streams’ original ending, John has been using performance as a mode of thought.” Cassavetes was literally working through creative decisions with the camera rolling on him. What he was trying to discover, no one knew and, pushed to exhaustion, few cared. “With this edgy audience surrounding him, he can reach the level of performance he needs for his discovery,” Ventura writes. “He doesn’t care how pissed, crazy, intimidated, anxious, giddy we may get – he wants us that way, he wants the atmosphere of all those emotions churning together. The director creates an atmosphere, and it’s the atmosphere that directs the picture. He’s gambling that this atmosphere will direct him.”

Neil Bell played a dog in the stage production of Love Streams. He wore nothing but shorts and acted exactly like a dog, to the extent that the gimmick vanished. Cassavetes cast Bell in the film, but he didn’t know where or how he was going to use him. “John kept Neil on the set,” remembers Harwood. “It drove Al [Rubin, the producer] crazy. It really did. We didn’t have much money and he’s got this guy on salary. ‘I don’t know yet, Al,’ John would say.”

Then, days before the end of production, Cassavetes tells Ventura “It’s taken me all this time to realize Neil can’t be a dog, he has to be a man. Just sit there. Otherwise, it’s a joke.”

In the finished film, Cassavetes’ character, Robert Harmon, suddenly sees a strange, smiling, shirtless man sitting next to him. He appears right at the moment when headlights shine through the window from the car that’s going to take his sister, Sarah (Gena Rowlands), away. Throughout the movie, Sarah has been trying to hold onto love and Robert has been running from it. When Robert decides to commit to taking care of her, to give her the love she needs, that’s just when she decides to leave. Robert is depressed, but the sudden, almost supernatural, appearance of this strange man evokes in him a massive fit of laughter.

When they filmed his reaction, because they were shooting without a script, no one knew what John’s character was madly laughing at. His laughter was such that it actually alarmed the crew. After the take, Cassavetes looked at Ventura and said, “What the fuck am I doing? Am I crazy?” Then he jumped out of his seat, grabbed Ventura by the shoulders, put his face close to his, and said, “This picture – THIS picture – I don’t give a FUCK what anybody says. If you don’t have time to see it, don’t. If you don’t like it, don’t. If it doesn’t give you an answer, FUCK you. I didn’t make it for you anyway.” After which, as if he needed to get that out to do it again, he sat back down and immediately called for another take.

Cassavetes was trying to gather the strength to pull up something from way down deep inside him. Ventura represented the audience that Cassavetes had to find the courage to face, not after the film was completed, but at that moment. In essence, he was staring expectation right in the face when he looked at Ventura, and spurring himself to shun answers, nice tidy conclusions, comfortable resolutions to the film. He had to muster the courage to give the film the ending it wanted.

Cassavetes was dealing with the film as a living thing. “There’s something alive about a film that says ‘I resist you.’ The film itself resists,” he told Ventura earlier in the production. “And it says to you ‘Aha! You think you’re going to do this, but I’m going to do something else! And I’m not going to tell you what I’m gonna do!’” He was wrestling with the film the way a painter wrestles with a canvas, except he was the canvas. The struggle was happening within himself, both as the painter and the painted, and he needed to hone in on it and bring his film to an end for the last time ever.

In the movie, the shot of the strange man cuts abruptly to a dog sitting in the exact same spot. Was the man just in Harmon’s mind? Is the man the dog? What does he represent? What does it all mean? “Fuck ’em if they want answers,” Cassavetes told Ventura.

The last shot of Love Streams is from outside, through the pouring rain, into a window framing the glum Robert Harmon standing next to his jukebox. Hat in one hand, goblet of drink in the other, his attempts to convince her to stay having failed, his sister is gone. The music playing is a Bo Harwood original, “I’ll Leave It Up to You.” Despite having helped Harwood with the lyrics, and having asked Harwood to record a full version of the song, Cassavetes used an extremely rough, early version. “I didn’t like that,” Bo Harwood confesses. “That was done with just a synthesizer and a guitar and me singing it, and John had to have it for the end.” Cassavetes made a habit of using the rough versions of Harwood’s work, believing they held a special something that was lost when refined. In this rough version, there is something oddly magical about the song. The camera slowly zooms in. Cassavetes puts the rain-soaked straw hat on, low, slightly over his face, and turns away from the camera. Then, his head still turned, he takes the hat off and starts to wave with it out the window as he turns back to face the camera. He doesn’t look in the camera. He keeps waving with the hat, deliberately looking in slightly different directions out the window. He’s sad. It’s an empty sadness. He turns and walks out of frame. After shooting the take used in the film, Cassavetes called “Cut,” turned to Michael Ventura, and said, quietly, “That was fun.”

Mildred Bailey singing “Where Are You” plays over the credits. It seems to have little significance until the words “Where is my happy ending?”

When I first saw this ending in a movie theater, I had a strong urge to wave back at John Cassavetes. I didn’t. The urge is there every time I see it. I never do. It’s not proper. Besides, it’s a silly notion to think John is waving goodbye to us; clearly Robert Harmon is waving goodbye to his sister, right? However, when I think about what Cassavetes himself would say to my cowardice, to my bowing to proper decorum, it makes me want to make this pledge: From now on, whenever I see this film, I will wave back to the screen, to the man flickering in the light. No matter if it is projected by thousands of lumens in a theater or illuminated by pixels on some digital screen, no matter if part of me thinks it is just Robert Harmon waving goodbye to his sister, I will wave back. I will wave back to John Cassavetes, whisper “Goodbye, John,” and silently thank him for this mysterious ending, for leaving us without an answer.

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Criterion’s 2014 edition of Love Streams has a wealth of special features: a new 2K digital restoration with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray; a new audio commentary by writer Michael Ventura as well as his 60-minute documentary I’m Almost Not Crazy … – John Cassavetes: The Man and His Work; a new video essay on Gena Rowlands by film critic Sheila O’Malley; new interviews with executive producer and director of photography Al Ruban and actor Diahnne Abbot; a 2008 interview with actor Seymour Cassel; the theatrical trailer; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Dennis Lim and a 1984 New York Times piece on the film by Cassavetes.