Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Two kinds of love

We meet Robert (John Cassavetes) first, a novelist living in a spacious Hollywood Hills manor. He has many women around him, most of whom we won’t come to know, all of whom were pulled into Robert’s orbit by way of his stated determination to be granted women’s secrets, though whether this mission is for the sake of his art, a pick-up line, or both, is hazy. He’s middle-aged going on dead, divorced and estranged from his children, a hard-living, alternately charming and terrifying figure closing in on the final stages of some slow collapse. 

Sarah (Gena Rowlands) is Robert’s sunnier, manic counterpart, a woman resisting divorce from a man who, like her daughter, cannot endure her aggressive affections. Sarah doesn’t believe that love ebbs, ends or gets stopped up—love, once born, flows helplessly. Her psychiatrist tells her to get laid, maybe go on a trip; she does both, but really just wants to get back to the people who don’t want her. More than halfway into Love Streams (1984), Sarah and her copious luggage wind up at Robert’s, and their reunion is wonderfully moving. At some point we realize that Robert and Sarah are brother and sister, which feels odd, even disconcerting, since we might already know that Cassavetes and Rowlands were not only one of the movies’ great director-actress pairings, but also husband and wife. Jon Voigt was to play Robert, and when he dropped out at the last minute Cassavetes, already very ill from cirrhosis of the liver, stepped in. He’s falling apart and absolutely brilliant, on par with Rowlands, which is a huge compliment. 

Love Steams was Cassavetes penultimate and last truly personal work—he died in 1989. Now available in a gorgeously transferred, generously supplemented DVD/BD package from Criterion, the film is a masterpiece of finely managed chaos; hilarious, seemingly haphazard, yet fascinatingly structured, it feels more alive with love and loneliness and mystery than any three-hundred other films. Among the extras are Michael Ventura’s making-of documentary I’m Almost Not Crazy and interviews with producer/cinematographer Al Ruban and actors Seymour Cassel and Diahnne Abbott, all of which offer tremendous insight into Cassavetes’ process. There’s also a very good visual essay on Rowlands by critic Sheila O’Malley. 

Meticulously stylized and colour-coordinated, Pedro Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) would seem about as far from Cassavetes’ rough and tumble maundering as can be, yet these films share a remarkably similar theme: once touched by love, crazy people will do anything to be together. Upon his release from a psychiatric hospital, Ricki (Antonio Banderas) immediately seeks out Marina (Victoria Abril), a recovering addict and actress transitioning from porn to B-movies. Ricki escaped the hospital and had fleeting sex with Marina some years back. She doesn’t remember it, but it changed his life. Ricki was cured by his love for Marina, or rather, by his obsession. Or not cured exactly, but saved. Or not saved but liberated. And so he breaks into her home, knocks her unconscious and sequesters her until she realizes that they’re meant to be together. And, in a perverse twist that only Almodóvar could conceive of, much less pull off, she does realize it. 

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is about half-screwball comedy and half-post-Hitchcockian romance. It careens between masterfully crafted artifice and moments of arresting intimacy. Banderas and Abril exude a frenetic chemistry and an innate understanding of the essential absurdity and dictatorial nature of high desire. The film was enormously controversial and also happens to be one of Almodóvar’s masterpieces. It too is newly available from Criterion. 

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