Some time ago, I saw the film Love Streams. It was then, at the end of my journey through John Cassavetes’ filmography, when I first beheld two of the American master’s most clearly drawn characters, alcoholic playboy novelist Robert Harmon and his mentally unstable sister Sarah Lawson. At that point in my life, they fulfilled a particular psychological need when my relationship with my father was most tenuous. Seeing such erring characters on screen found me relief and justification for my thoughts and feelings toward an emotionally abusive parent—Robert and Sarah were comfortingly familiar. Time passed, and I revisited the film. I was eager to return to the source of my ease, to tap back into the spring. But the well was dry, or, at least, no longer in Love Streams would I find the easy solace it had lent me previously. Had the film changed since my first viewing? Of course not; the late Cassavetes hadn’t risen and re-edited his classic. There was only one discernibly changed variable: time.
Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky’s interest lies in the evil of said familiarity in his “Art as Technique.” Habitualization, he writes, is degenerate. “[It] devours work, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war. ‘If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been’” (Shklovsky 5). Art that only reaffirms viewers’ preconceived notions is useless. Shklovsky insists that art should not only avoid what is familiar but that it should combat it. “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar.’ … Tolstoy [for example] makes the familiar seem strange” (Shklovsky 5). The essay does not stop at simply stating this ultimate artistic objective; Shklovsky proposes ways in which artists can “increase the difficulty” (5) of perception, writing, “In studying poetic speech in its phonetic and lexical structure as well as in its characteristic distribution of words, and in the characteristic thought structures compounded-from the words, we find everywhere the artistic trademark—that is, we find material obviously created to remove the automatism of perception” (11). As evidenced by the title of the text, “Art as Technique,” Shklovsky is preoccupied with the formal elements, “material obviously created,” which achieve what he perceives as art’s goal.
Shklovsky’s notion of challenging the familiar is discernible in nearly every successful piece of art, but, as is observable with Love Streams, the combative methods are not only limited to formal elements. As part of the Russian formalism movement, he believed that, according to John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, “the literariness or artfulness of a work of literature, that which makes it an aesthetic object, resides entirely in its devices, which should also form the sole object of literary studies” (Margolin “Russian Formalism”). Although he would later become a respected early writer on film, Shklovsky’s conception of technique was limited by the constrained methods of his sphere of influence, literature. “A work is created ‘artistically’ so that its perception is impeded” (Shklovsky 11)—what if the work is not “created ‘artistically’” within the limits of literature? By toying with the concept of time and re-experiencing art, Love Streams finds itself somewhere outside those restraints.
Cassavetes’ writes his characters unapologetically. They are who they are, complete with faults and inconsistencies. Love Streams opens on Robert with a fresh scar over his right eye, a bandage around the hand that holds his cigarette, and little Renee, daughter of his accountant, in his arms (00:00:41-00:01:07). In the scenes following, Robert reveals his life, the “junkyard” (00:00:53), full of tossed-aside women and forgotten children. Sarah, his sister, is going through a messy divorce—she’s nonsensical yet stubborn. “I’m a very happy person,” replies Mabel to accusations from her husband that she hasn’t been “cured” (00:14:30). Robert and Sarah, two woefully misguided love-seeking people, grope in the dark.
Scenes of conflict in Love Streams—a crazed Sarah childishly attempting to make her distantly estranged husband and daughter laugh (01:57:08-02:01:29), Robert pushing his estranged son further away by projecting his own anxieties onto him (01:07:01-01:08:48), Sarah foolishly trying to hold on to her perfect image of a stable family unit (00:12:33-00:13:51)—may initially seem to categorize Cassavetes’ characters archetypically, but Cassavetes renders his characters in such discrete lights that they are distinctly individual. Sarah says eccentric lines like, “I love you, you dumbo-head” (01:22:55). She wanders around the house looking for Robert to tell him something important, finds him silhouetted against the jukebox, and joins him in a dance, not saying a word (01:13:52-01:15:46). Love Streams is not quite the unfiltered reality of his early films like Shadows. Indeed, there are a few surrealist moments, but the formal elements of the film never supersede these characters.
Shklovsky and Cassavetes, and many others artists, agree with the objective set forth in “Art as Technique”: challenge the familiar. Where the two diverge is in method. Shklovsky insists, or rather, he does not consider anything other than “the slowness of the perception” (11) being within the walls of a piece of art. Cassavetes, on the other hand, shuns all formalist approaches of achieving Shklovsky’s goal. Instead, he creates a dichotomy in the characters of Love Streams: their unadorned immediacy versus the depth found in their distinctiveness. Their immediacy satisfies the beginning stages of a viewer’s experience with Love Streams. To move the viewer to the next stage, Cassavetes ventures beyond the confines of the film and relies on the real-world progression of time. It is outside the theater, away from the film, where Love Streams is slowly, consciously and unconsciously, perceived. Since Love Streamsfocuses on character rather than form, viewers are able to delve deeper than the initial superficiality of Robert and Sarah. Then when it is time for another screening, the film and its characters pose at a different angle.
Much has been said about art as comfort. Many film directors approach their art with the intention of creating “escapist” entertainment; others want to achieve some form of verisimilitude. The art that interests Shklovsky travels beyond either of those approaches into a realm where comfort is confronted. Love Streams does so without it falling within Shklovsky’s definition of “artistic,” without a primary focus on form. It simply uses character and time. When I sat down to see Love Streams again, I was eager to once again regard the characters that had confirmed my worldly emotions. I should have known better—I had been thinking about the film consistently ever since seeing it the first time—did I expect to receive it the same way twice? I expected comfort, and I was confronted with complexity. Sarah now seemed to have empathetic reasoning for her actions; Robert, an unselfish defense of his sister. It made me reflect on the nature of my father who I had originally associated with Sarah. I had to re-evaluate my seemingly organized relationships. Have I come to any life-changing conclusions? Not quite, but I think another viewing of Love Streams may be in order.
"Art as Technique": justinchildress.co/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/shklovsky1.pdf
"Russian Formalism": litguide.press.jhu.edu/cgi-bin/view.cgi?eid=227&query=Russian%20Formalism