Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

Reviewed By Lybarger
Posted 12/03/04 08:16:27

"Tune In To This"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

With a proliferation of movie-related cable channels and deluxe directorís cut DVDs of even so-so films like Daredevil, itís hard to believe that these things were unheard of a mere 30 years ago.

Films that studios didnít understand or know how to release properly simply sat on the shelf unseen. Talented filmmakers like Robert Altman, Henry Jaglom and Woody Allen were resigned to seeing their movies languish in obscurity.

A small cable channel that was only available in Los Angeles helped correct this problem. From 1974 to 1988, Z Channel broadcast commercial and specialty films uncut and commercial free. At the time, this was revolutionary.

The station also broadcast original directorís versions of reviled movies like Heavenís Gate and Once Upon a Time in America, letting viewers discover for themselves how much better the films were when presented the way their creators intended instead of the mutilated versions that ran in theaters.

The channel broadcast commercial disappointments like Annie Hall and Salvador around the time that Oscar nominations were taking place. As a result, the former became a multiple Academy Award winner, and the nominations the latter earned launched the careers of James Woods and Oliver Stone.

Future filmmakers like Alexander Payne (Sideways) got their first exposure to European and American art cinema through Z Channel. Even Quentin Tarantino, who couldnít get the channel in his neighborhood, got to see films like Luchino Viscontiís The Leopard through dubs of Z Channel broadcasts.

Xan Cassavetesí new documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, which is scheduled to run on IFC on May 14-15, 2005, recaptures the thrill of catching a rare film on the channel. Cassavetes is the daughter of director John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowlands, but more importantly, she was an avid fan of the channel and appreciates its previously unheralded role in bringing unique films to the public.

Much of Z Channel plays like Film Geek Valhalla. As grateful filmmakers like Altman rattle off about what the channel did for them, Cassavetes generously samples the movies their discussing. Many of these films have only recently come to DVD or are still unavailable, so donít be surprised if you find yourself taking notes as the titles are mentioned.

She also deserves a lot of credit for carefully explaining why Z Channel is no longer available. Its program director Jerry Harvey was a champion of neglected films and filmmakers, but he had a horrific upbringing (both of his sisters committed suicide as adults).

The stress of keeping his channel going despite aggressive competition from HBO and Showtime and some periods of substance abuse apparently took their toll. In 1988, Harvey shot his wife Deri Rudolph and then killed himself. The station folded soon after.

With only still photographs, a bizarre radio interview and the recollections, Cassavetes centers Z Channel around a sensitive and compelling portrait of Harvey and his legacy.

Featuring remarkably candid testimony from Harveyís coworkers, his longtime girlfriend and his first wife, Z Channel vividly acknowledges Harveyís dark side without sensationalizing it. As a result, Cassavetes is able to give Z Channel an eerie momentum that nicely counterbalances its standard talking head format. She also uses the film samples to reflect Harveyís state of mind at the time as the documentary progresses. For someone who was so passionate about movies and made them his life, itís both an appropriate and effective device.

Cassavetes, nor anyone else for that matter, can really explain why Harvey committed such a thoughtless act. But by explaining how important Z Channel continues to be even after its demise, she helps viewers rediscover the movies it played and reminds us what can be lost without obsessive people who keep those flicks alive.

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