Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

"It was like having a film festival in your home every single night," says Henry Jaglom in neatly summing up the unique appeal of the Z Channel. Xan Cassavetes' docu stands as a worthy and evocative, if a bit indulgent, commemoration of the early cable station, which grew out of -- and directly expressed -- an intense film buff mentality.

“It was like having a film festival in your home every single night,” says Henry Jaglom in neatly summing up the unique appeal of the Z Channel, a pioneering Los Angeles phenomenon still revered by filmmakers and industryites nearly a quarter century after its heyday. Xan Cassavetes’ docu stands as a worthy and evocative, if a bit indulgent, commemoration of the early cable station, which grew out of — and directly expressed — an intense film buff mentality but had crucial influences on numerous film trade practices. Talking heads-and-clips approach makes this a natural for specialized cable, fest and vid/DVD dissemination.

Inextricably linked with the rise and fall of Z is the dark personal journey of the outlet’s transforming boss, Jerry Harvey, who was hired by California’s first pay TV service in 1980, after it was on the air six years, molded it to his own tastes as an all-movie station without cuts or commercials, but, succumbing to his own demons, ended it all eight years later by killing his wife and himself.

Knitting the short but fulsome story together with excerpts from a radio interview Harvey gave in the mid-’80s, Cassavetes uses an impressive range of personalities to illustrate the range of Z’s impact; New Hollywood figures such as Robert Altman, Henry Jaglom and James Woods explain how showings on Z resurrected films of theirs that had initially flopped, while future directors Quentin Tarantino and Alexander Payne describing the worlds the channel opened up to them as young buffs (they are among the many who still possess countless videos taped from Z years back).

After studying at UCLA and working at the BevHills revival house, the Beverly Canon, where he debuted an uncut print of “The Wild Bunch” with Sam Peckinpah in attendance, Harvey worked as a screenwriter for Monte Hellman (“China 9, Liberty 37”) before snaring the Z job in 1980.

His double-barreled policy of programming Euro and adventuresome Yank product appealed strongly to L.A.’s film-wise public (as critic and Harvey’s close friend F.X. Feeney puts it, Z was aimed at “the uncommon denominator”), the monthly program guide was strongly opinionated pro and con, discoveries were rife, directors’ and actors’ bodies of work were featured in full seasons, and there was even a latenight “Night Owl” slot unashamedly dedicated to the best in Euro soft core (Tarantino’s rhapsodic sputterings about Italian sex queen Laura Antonelli reps an interview highlight).

The Z Channel really reached its peak when it ran restored versions of films that had been butchered, mutilated and/or discarded on the scrap heap of history. Beginning with a splash with the debut of the original version of Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” after the cut version had bombed in theaters, the trend continued with the likes of “1900,” “Das Boot” (the full German TV version), “Once Upon a Time in America,” “Isadora,” “The Leopard,” “Ludwig” and “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” among others. Net effect of these restoration efforts marked the dawning of what, in the DVD era, has come to be known as the director’s cut.

Z occasioned the only TV appearances in the U.S. of Fassbinder’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” and the full TV version of Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander.” Having reputedly boosted, pre-Harvey, “Annie Hall” to Oscar attention with voting season broadcasts, the channel subsequently brought back Oliver Stone’s widely neglected “Salvador,” directly resulting, in lead actor Woods’ opinion, to nominations for the script and himself. These innovations clearly foreshadow the subsequent move toward video and DVD mailings of the year’s pics during Oscar season.

Backdropping all these achievements is the volatile personality of Harvey himself. An apparent manic depressive with a problematic family history (both his sisters evidently committed suicide), Harvey could be very moody, his disposition often adversely affected by medications and booze; his first wife recounts having been held at gunpoint by him for several hours (with a gun given to him by Peckinpah, no less), and a close associate recalls him admitting, “I’m really crazy.”

The end was tragic. Undergoing difficult times, Z was bought in 1988 by a company that decided to combine movie programming with sports, just as the channel and Harvey had entered into restraint of trade litigation against HBO and others. While expressing outward optimism to his friends and colleagues, Harvey, then 38, murdered his widely adored second wife and, after speaking with his shrink on the phone, committed suicide.

Z expired the following year.

Participants, and thus the film itself, back off trying to explain why Harvey would kill his wife, other than to admit that a bad seed ran in the family. Residual emotion is thus tinged with a somewhat empty melancholy, but the highly articulate Feeney, who after Harvey emerges as the star of the film, puts his late friend’s real talents and achievements in proper perspective without excusing his unfathomable final act.

Interview subjects and clips are well employed; the tech side sharp. Pic’s major points don’t really need the generous two-hour running time to be made, but intended buff audience won’t much mind given the fine excerpts and film lore minutiae on offer.

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

  • Production: An Independent Film Channel presentation of a Maja Films and Fresh Produce Films production. Produced by Rick Ross, Marshall Persinger. Executive producers, Alison Palmer Bourke, Ed Carroll. Supervising producer, Susan Heimbinder. Co-producer, F.X. Feeney. Directed by Xan Cassavetes.
  • Crew: Camera (color, 16mm/HD), John Pirozzi; editor, Iain Kennedy; music, Steven Hufsteter. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (noncompeting), May 14, 2004. Running time: 120 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Robert Altman, Vera Anderson, Charles Lynn Batten, Jacqueline Bisset, Charles Champlin, David Chasman, Stuart Cooper, F.X. Feeney, Andrea Grossman, James B. Harris, Don Hyde, Henry Jaglom, Jim Jarmusch, Charles Joffe, Bill Mechanic, Edwin Michaelove, Ned Nalle, Jerry Pam, Alexander Payne, Chuck Ross, Doreen Ringer Ross, Alan Rudolph, Theresa Russell, Tim Ryerson, Jeff Schwager, Penelope Spheeris, Bob Strock, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Thomas, Jonathan Turell, Douglas Venturelli, Paul Verhoeven, James Woods, Vilmos Zsigmond.
  • Music By: