Cassavetes: cascades of emotion

The sheer eccentricity of ''Love Streams'' is an exhilarating tonic in this year of factory-made fantasies and dramas. You know you're in a John Cassavetes movie right from the start. The first shot doesn't ease on-screen, as in a Hollywood production - it sort of lurches on, like an opening chord played by an orchestra without a conductor.

The rest of the picture (written by Mr. Cassavetes and Ted Allan) has the same rough, documentary look. The camera plunges into the action as deeply as the characters, feeling their pain and sharing their occasional joy. It also gets confused at times, along with the audience - but bursts of incoherence are the price one pays for entering the profoundly emotional world of Cassavetes, the most purely instinctive artist working in feature films today.

Never mind the story, a snarled web of incidents involving a rich, loose-living writer and his mentally unstable sister. Never mind the other characters, a tangled mixture of ex-spouses, lovers, and children caught miserably in the middle. The movie has a million flaws, from muddled editing to incomprehensible plot twists.

But the point of ''Love Streams'' lies elsewhere, in its images and feelings. Emotion cascades across the screen with reckless speed and intensity. It's a film based on extravagant risks by director and actors alike - and while many of the risks don't pay off, the successful ones build a booming crescendo of utterly unpredictable cinema.

Cassavetes is often accused of indulging his actors, and although he dwells relentlessly on them here (abetted by Al Ruban's camera) he also plunks them into wildly expressive settings and situations. His merging of illusion and reality isn't always easy to sort out, but such wayward invention is a key pleasure of the movie.

By the last reel he has filled the main character's house with barnyard animals, set a furious tempest roaring outside, and thoroughly blurred the distinction between fact and fantasy. Amid all this, an unidentified new character pops up in the hero's living room, and when the hero (played by Cassavetes) asks who in the world he is - the newcomer won't tell him! This is crazy stuff, but it keeps you on your toes. I wouldn't trade it for all the high-tech gimmicks in Steven Spielberg's bag of tricks.

''Love Streams'' has strong similarities to other Cassavetes pictures, especially the glorious ''A Woman Under the Influence,'' which also starred Gena Rowlands as a disturbed woman. The likeness is probably not accidental; Cassavetes hasn't made a strongly commercial film in years, and a return to past themes must have seemed a good prospect.

But that's not to call ''Love Streams'' a safe bet on any count. Cassavetes, a Hollywood star who could easily churn out slick studio productions, remains firmly committed to the deeply personal cinema he has been exploring for almost 25 years. Disappointments like ''Opening Night'' and ''The Killing of a Chinese Bookie'' - two sadly underrated films - don't change his course for a moment. His body of work is highly uneven, ranging from the toughness of ''Shadows'' to the self-indulgence of ''Husbands'' and the silliness of ''Gloria.'' But his integrity is unstoppable. For all its goofiness, ''Love Streams'' has more passion, imagination, and courage than most directors dream of.

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