Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

Reviewed By The Ultimate Dancing Machine
Posted 07/06/04 20:53:41

"The medium is the message"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Jerry Harvey was a strange, intense man who was in many ways the prototypical movie nerd. His life fit a pattern we've all heard before: the unhappy childhood, leavened somewhat by the early discovery of movies; later, a obsessive interest in film to the exclusion of all else. He was still a young man when he became the head programmer of Z Channel, an early L.A.-area pay-cable station, which under his guidance became a highly eclectic mix of everything from cheapo exploitation fare to the heights of Euro-cinema. Jerry Harvey became a hero to film fans everywhere. Then he shot himself.

Xan Cassavettes' (daughter of John) documentary is a compulsively watchable overview of the whole phenomenon, which includes interviews with former Z-watchers like Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, and Robert Altman. While listening to these luminaries gush over a nearly forgotten cable-TV channel, you might suspect that all this enthusiasm may be a bit excessive, but the film puts forth a convincing case that Harvey, in his eccentric way, left a permanent mark on Hollywood.

Harvey mobilized an entire generation of future film auteurs, giving them access to movies that even today aren't readily available. By airing the uncut five-hour version of HEAVEN'S GATE, he singlehandedly created the "director's cut" craze (admittedly a mixed blessing), and in the process made a lifelong friend of Michael Cimino. This was the hallmark of Harvey's programming style: he found movies that no else else cared for, or in many cases even knew about. One time, he devoted an all-day festival to the works of Stuart Cooper, ignoring the not-unreasonable objections from his colleagues that no one had ever heard of Stuart Cooper, much less seen his films.

Harvey was a troubled man, and he had the kind of troubles no amount of material success can eradicate. He freely told his friends about his frequent trips to the therapist, and sometimes his lovably eccentric behavior crossed the line into downright menacing. Prone to black moods, he'd occasionally threaten people with loaded guns. And when Z Channel finally started going under in the late '80s, Harvey, who never cared about anything except movies, had nothing to fall back on. One day in 1988, he finally snapped, shooting his wife, then himself.

Z CHANNEL, clocking in at a solid two-hour running time, could probably use some trimming. Occasionally the film seems to be going astray; do we really need to hear Paul Verhoeven rambling on about the making of TURKISH DELIGHT? And Cassavettes' choice of film clips shows a bizarre trend: A very high percentage of the clips shown feature gratuitious nudity--to what purpose I can't imagine, but it comes off as a strained attempt to give the documentary an "edge."

Even so, Z CHANNEL has rescued a small yet interesting piece of film history from the dust bin. For that, we owe Xan Cassavettes a big thanks. And while we're at it, save one for Jerry Harvey, one of those devotees Hollywood simply cannot do without.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.