Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

on October 13, 2004 by Mark Keizer
Once upon a time, say 1974, the world had yet to rent a movie, play a videogame or use a VCR. Cable television was still a curiosity and 24-hour movie channels were years away. Ironically, in Los Angeles, the film capital of Earth, classic Hollywood films and obscure European fare were toss-offs on late-night TV or the domain of run-down, sparsely attended revival theaters. But one man with an obsessive love and encyclopedic knowledge of film saw a chance to introduce a generation of Angelinos, young and old, to the masters of cinema. He was Jerry Harvey and his creation, a pay cable network called Z Channel, helped transform Hollywood and influence a generation of future filmmakers who otherwise would never have been exposed to Sam Peckinpah or Luis Bunuel.

Harvey's handiwork and its impact is the subject of Xan Cassavetes' excellent new documentary "Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession," which impressed audiences at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Those outside Los Angeles who have never heard of Z Channel will not only come to thank the man who created it, but also learn of his tragic fate. Those who remember slipping the cable guy $20 to "hook me up" with an illegal Z Channel signal will be treated to a wonderful trip down Cable Theft Lane.

Harvey, the son of a judge, was an intense Bakersfield, California, native whose two sisters committed suicide. Immersing himself in film seemed a natural diversion. In 1980, he put his love of movies to its ultimate use, joining Z Channel as director of programming. His ability to pick fascinating and little-seen foreign fare made Z Channel essential viewing and its monthly guide essential reading. Z was the only place on TV (if not anywhere) to see back-to-back Francois Truffaut movies or the complete 15-hour "Berlin Alexanderplatz."

Harvey's story is told by an impressive collection of intimates, including articulate Z Channel cohort FX Feeney and directors Robert Altman and Henry Jaglom. Quentin Tarantino (who was in attendance at the Cannes screening) gesticulates wildly about his love for Z, while director Alexander Payne ("Election") talks of the complaint letter he wrote to the channel. In response, Z sent him a T-shirt, which he wears in the interview.

Harvey's first major coup was finding and airing the only known copy of Michael Cimino's cut of "Heaven's Gate." In 1982, it was unheard of to air director's cuts, especially of such a hated film. The coups would pile up for Harvey, but so would his emotional problems, which are honestly and sympathetically recounted by Feeney. Harvey and the channel he created died almost simultaneously: On April 1, 1988, the network added sports telecasts, which hastened Z's demise. On April 8, 1988, Harvey shot his second wife to death, then killed himself.

"A Magnificent Obsession" is two hours, which is long for any documentary consisting of so many talking heads. Cassevetes could have easily lost 10 minutes, as every permutation of Harvey's mental state and Z's influence need not have been covered. However, the film always fascinates. There is enough star power to convince the audience that Z Channel was an important creation and Harvey's rise and fall is a genuinely interesting story. And of course, there are clips. Over 50 wonderful films are represented, demonstrating the extent of Harvey's movie knowledge. Titles range from Andrzej Zulawski's "The Important Thing is To Love" to "The Empire Strikes Back." "Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession" is not only a terrific film to watch for video rental recommendations, it's simply a terrific film. Featuring Robert Altman, FX Feeney, Quentin Tarantino and James Woods. Directed by Xan Cassavetes. Produced by Rick Ross and Marshall Persinger. No distributor set. Documentary. Not yet rated. Running time: 120 min.

Tags: Featuring Robert Altman, FX Feeney, Quentin Tarantino and James Woods. Directed by Xan Cassavetes, Produced by Rick Ross, Marshall Persinger, Documentary

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