It's surprising, and a little dispiriting, that John Cassavetes' last film, Love Streams (1984), looks more like a true independent feature than most of what passes for such today. Cassavetes was an authentic innovator. From his mostly improvised first feature, Shadows (1960), through a string of wrenching dramas about male-female relationships (many starring his wife, Gena Rowlands) to this final, rarely screened masterpiece, Cassavetes presented a gallery of flawed and unforgettable characters.
In Love Streams the director himself plays perhaps the most flawed of the lot as Robert Harmon, a boozy novelist who terrorizes ex-wives and ex-girlfriends and gets his 9-year-old son drunk before abandoning him. Adding some balance to this grim portrait is the only person he seems to care about, his sister. Sarah, played by a luminous Gena Rowlands, is a vibrant middle-aged woman in the midst of an unwanted divorce, whose desperate need for love drives her and everyone around her crazy. Cassavetes claimed he was "more interested in the people who work with me than in the film itself or in cinema" -- but in finding the humanity and even humor in his damaged characters, as he does in Love Streams, he transforms all three. Love Streams screens Friday at 8 p.m. at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission (at Third Street), S.F. Admission is $3-6; call 978-ARTS.
-- Gary Morris