Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Alexandra Cassavetes
viewed: 08/28/06

This film, which I stumbled onto in Netflix and seems to have been an IFC production, turned out to be a fascinating documentary about Z Channel, an early cable network dedicated to cinema in its truest sense.  Run by Jerry Harvey, a mentally ill and personally challenged genius of film appreciation, the network ran from the mid-1970’s to the late 1980’s only in the greater Los Angeles area.  It was an amazing thing, something that must have been fantastic in its times as many of the interviewees attest.  It’s a great, great shame that it never became nationwide and the loss of it and its leader really has been a loss for the United States and the world for film appreciation.

It’s a tragic story, as we learn from the opening minutes, that Harvey killed his wife and then himself only a year before the network folded.  Many of the people find his death and the taking of his wife’s death so horrible that they reckon that it is one reason that the Z Channel’s story has gone untold for so long.

Harvey had an amazing sense of film appreciation, incredible taste, and prolific and broad vision, searching the world for lost films, promoting overlooked masterpieces, finding director’s cuts, and showing films uncut in full with no commercials.  Their competitors were the much more mainstream HBO and Cinemax, whose aspirations in the market were better funded but essentially corporate-run and soulless.  Harvey programmed Z Channel himself, selecting a vast variety of art and mainstream Hollywood fare, foreign and classic, like the greatest repetory theater ever, but playing on television.  He was far ahead of his time, as so often is the expression for pioneers and visionaries.

Having just watched El Dorado (1966) on the once decent AMC network, it really is stunning what the Z Channel must have been in its time.  It’s also stunning that there is nothing remotely like it in the miasma of cable and satelite television even these days where a multitude of channel options belies the utter dearth of quality programming.  Harvey played what he liked and it was of high quality and serious cultivation, film as art with few restrictions around that term.  It’s really a great shame that it was not available in wider ranges or even still.

I recall the early days of cable television in Gainesville, Florida, the first channels that we received.  I recall getting “the box’ that was HBO and how it only played like four movies a week, over and over again.  I think it was Jaws (1975) when we first got it.  It was nothing like how they describe the Z Channel.

The big difference since the channel’s and Harvey’s tragic demises, is the video market and now the DVD market, especially influenced now by such services as Netflix.  More and more films are available to the consumer, to anyone anywhere in the service’s range.  One can program their own film fests, as I guess that I do, selecting what interests me as I like.  Better DVD productions, such as those from Criterion, really offer depth and insight that good programming could also offer.

The difference is that with a programmer such as Harvey, the selection and insight are his, a keen collector and promotor of great films, great ideas, things that introduce one beyond the scope of what one finds.  Also, having been broadcast to a wide audience, it opened the doors for many people perhaps not as keen on cinema, showing them things that they would never have seen before.

I don’t mean to overplay my sense of this.  It was what it was, a cable channel with great movies, and Harvey was a sad, tragic figure in the end, not unproblematic.  It’s clear that his influence was great and many of the people featured in the film are significant figures in film: Robert Altman, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, to name a few.

I found it extremely interesting, perhaps as a cinephile myself (though perhaps much more low-brow), to see the many great films that were played on the network.  Really, quite interesting.  And the documentary itself is well-made.

El Dorado

El Dorado (1966) movie poster

(1966) dir. Howard Hawks
viewed: 08/27/06

I, as I often have stated here, hate watching movies on broadcast television and almost utterly refuse to do so.  So, why I decided to watch Howard Hawks’ El Dorado, I can only say that I happened to catch it coming on and decided to stick with it.  AMC used to be a good film network, but now they have an horrendous number of ads running frequently throughout a film.  I understand that TCM still runs films in their full duration.  AMC also plays a lot of modern crap that can hardly be considered “American Movie Classics”.

That said, El Dorado, is perhaps a classic American movie.  It’s directed by one of Hollywood’s true auteurs, Howard Hawks, and stars some big name talent like John Wayne and Robert Mitchum and features some other solid performances from Ed Asner, Arthur Hunnicutt, and a very young James Caan.

It’s cut from a classic form cloth, in fact, many speculate that this film is essentially a remake of Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) rather than an adaptation of a novel as the film claims.  It’s interesting since this film is created out of the studio system by the heavyweights of the system but is in close time proximity to significant twists on the genre in such films as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) &  Little Big Man (1970), El Dorado is a more traditional Western in more ways than one.

It clearly depicts the last flares of a dying system and approach to genre, but does so with much of the traditional system’s qualities and charms.  Wayne and Mitchum are very strong, pulling the others along with them in numerous moments, and I am sure that the film continues to be rife with characteristics of Hawks’s films and is probably quite interesting from that perspective.  This was his second to last completed film.

Ultimately, I found it a mixed bag, myself.  When the classic pieces were working and when the story was clicking, there were many moments and sequences of good, classic Western material.  But really, the film does feel like a retread.  The story is not particularly compelling, sort of straight Oater fare.  One evil cattle baron tries to tough out another cattleman for the water rights to his land.  Hired guns are hired.  It all ends in a shoot-out.  There is not a great sense of period or significance.  As in Hawks’s films, it’s about the relationships between men and men and men and women, and therein lies the interest and pleasures.

I think it would be interesting to chart the significant developments in the Western, as it moved from certain codification and characteristics to the points in which those codes became subverted or replayed.  Where this film falls on that chart or timeline could be particularly interesting, especially for such a major director of classic Hollywood and major stars such as “The Duke”.   That said, that’s probably been done and all I need to do is Google it.

Snakes on a Plane

Snakes on a Plane (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. David R. Ellis
viewed: 08/26/06 at Metreon, SF, CA

Motherfuckin’ snakes on a motherfuckin’ plane.

This film delivers on its premise and promise, which is essentially just that.  It’s totally ridiculous and it doesn’t have any pretensions that it’s not.  It’s downright laugh-out-loud funny, especially with a hyper hyped-up Saturday night audience that is still buzzing from this movie’s internet pre-release fan fest.  People were loving this movie, laughing and jumping and quoting lines right along with it, cheering Samuel L. Jackson the moment he hit the screen.  It really was a fun night out at the movies.  It really delivered the goods.

It’s totally silly.  The first snake bite is on a woman’s nipple, the second is on a man’s penis.  I was wondering where there were going to go from there.  But it’s full of funny little asides and jokes and sight gags.  It’s really almost a comedy.  But it’s probably better being played “straight” than otherwise.

The film is hip to itself, unlike so many of the B-movies that have forged the notion of what B-movies consist typically.  With an estimated budget at $33 million, this is B-movie stuff of this era, featuring only Samuel L. Jackson as a marketable star.  But somewhere along the way, this film became an internet legend before it even got going and the hype has become history.  In this case, the hype was largely just people getting into the notion of an overly silly movie concept played out with some relish and it really was worth the trip.

I don’t know how this film will seem years from now.  Will it be appreciated largely for the merits that it is presently appreciated?  People enjoying gruesome silliness and semi-camp characters cut from a catalog of cliches?  Who knows?  And to some extent, who cares?

This is a film of the moment and seeing it in that context was a total blast.

Mau Mau Sex Sex

Mau Mau Sex Sex (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Ted Bonnitt
viewed: 08/23/06

Despite the luridness of the title, this film is actually a pretty simple documentary about David F. Friedman and Dan Sonney, two pioneers of the Exploitation genre.  The title comes from a quote by Sonney who says that a film that they were trying to release called Mau Mau didn’t have a marketable title, but if changed to Mau Mau Sex Sex, then you’d have something that would drive people in.

This film is a lot better, if less ambitious than Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies (2001), which I just watched a couple weeks ago and also featured interviews with Friedman.  Friedman is an interesting character, now in his 80’s, still running a Carnival and very vested in the history of exploitation and its roots in the Carnival, sideshows, and P. T. Barnum.  They amuse themselves greatly with the tease and promotion of the content, saying how he’d work longer on the movie poster than he would on a script, since once  you got people in, that was the bulk of the work.

One of the reasons that this film is better than Schlock!, is simply that it doesn’t use any narrative voiceover to try and explain things.  The only real analyst of the content from a modern perspective is an interview with Frank Henenlotter, a film historian and a somewhat notable trash filmmaker in his own right, director of Frankenhooker (1990), Brain Damage (1988), and Basket Case (1982).  Henenlotter is actually quite amusing in his riffing knowledge of the oevre.

The film captures its subjects late in life, octo- and septagenarians (actually catching Sonney only a year before his death) and besides trying to create the history of their work and contextualize their films and lives, it also focuses on the present of the film, 2001, and has many moments following the elderly fellows around their homes and families, giving a glimpse at who they became.  It’s actually kind of interesting in a way, but then again, by this time, they are largely elderly fellows in daily moments, watching t.v., washing dishes, looking for missing thermos lids.  It’s not exactly riviting as the clips of nudies and ripped-out tongues and eyeballs from their films.

Actually, Dan Sonney is the son of Louis Sonney, whose story is told as well, reputedly the first independent filmmaker and initiator of the Exploitation genre with his film Maniac (1934) which looks totally insane and contains the scene of a guy popping a cat’s eye out of its socket and eating it.  I mean, this was 1934 for Chrissakes!  It’s radical.  It’s avant-garde.  Even Un chien andalou (1929) was only five years earlier.  It’s nuts!  I have got to rent that one.

As a film on its own, it’s no great shakes, but its subject matter is interesting and fun, though occasionally drifts off toward “senior moments”.  Still, Friedman is a fascinating character.  I am feeling inspired to watch a few of these classics of trash now.

Monster House

Monster House (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Gil Kenan
viewed: 08/14/06 at Odeon Derby, Derby, UK

Second film that I watched in England on this holiday (annoyed again by the nearly half hour of garbage advertising that preceded even the trailers) was again straight out of Hollywood, and like the Pirates film, it was actually a very good example of what Hollywood can do when it manages to get it right.

Monster House is produced by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis and it channels their kid fare of the 1980’s with significant success.   It’s a more mature kids film, meaning that it’s actually on the scary side and that it has no annoying cutesy sidekicks or bad musical numbers throughout.

The design is strong, slick and polished.  The animation was made with motion capture, in which actors’ movements, bodily and facial are recorded through wires attached to their body.   So the movement and to an extent, the characters’ expressions are literally that of the actor.  I have never cared for most implementations of this technique and though it works well in this film, better than I’ve ever seen, it still stuck in my craw at times.

But the film itself, the narrative, the characters, the action, everything is pretty fun and solid.  It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s far better than anything that Hollywood has output in some years.  My understanding is the Gil Kenan, the director, is a true protege of Spielberg and Zemeckis.  Maybe he’ll continue to blossom as a director.  Who knows?  This film is certainly fun and worth seeing even if it is straight out of modern classic Hollywood style and direction.

Good stuff.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Gore Verbinski
viewed: 08/05/06 at Odeon Derby, Derby, UK

I haven’t seen a film in England in five years or more, I reckon.  Not that it’s a particularly different experience from the states.  Years ago, the UK was the first place that I ever saw commercials in the cinema prior to the film, though that has become annoyingly ubiquitous in the US since then.  In the UK, nowadays, it’s a bit mad.  They have like 10-15 minutes of advertising, and it’s bad advertising too.  That seems to be the main difference.  They used to have these women come through and sell candies from their carried carts.  Not this time.  This cinema only showed Hollywood fare with one Indian exception.  It was like being anywhere in the United States, really.  Except the money is worth twice as much and so it’s all a little more painful.

But I was there to see the big summer movie anyways, so I guess it didn’t matter.  I’d not seen the “original” Pirates movie on the big screen, I think because I had a small child at the time.  It had been a surprisingly fun film, as many had said and enjoyed, and though I had heard mixed things over this latest installment, it was a pretty safe bet for a fun time out.

And it is.  It’s jolly good. A little long, sure, but a rollicking adventure with very nicely designed villains, all zombie-fied but with lots of oceanic impressions on them.  Davy Jones, the octopus-headed evil villain, is very cool-looking.  Always something to be striven for in design.

The set pieces are also good, from the rolling water wheel to the Kraken, it’s all a lot of good fun.  Johnny Depp is back in brilliant form, redeeming an otherwise mediocre script with his campy flourishes to his Captain Jack Sparrow.  He seems to bring the right level of humor and goofiness to the character, all while treading the line between a morally confused yet ultimately swashbuckling fop of a hero.  His kudos are well-earned here again.

For all he does well, Keira Knightley does awfully.  She doesn’t have a lot to work with script-wise or personality wise, but she’s pretty darn lame when it comes down to it.  Orlando Bloom is okay but Johnny Depp is the one with the juicy role and seems to be the only one who knows what to do with it anyways.

Like I’ll often say, It’s not Shakespeare, but what the hell.  This is probably the best summer movie that Hollywood has to offer this year, and while the competition for that title is awful thin this year, the film rightfully earns that.  We all know that there is a sequel in the wings next summer and I can say that I am certainly looking forward to it if they can make it as fun as this one.

Let’s face it, how many movies based on a theme ride can one say that about?  Oh, but I think it sucks that they have modified the ride to include the characters from the film.  It was perfect before!

Black Hawk Down

Black Hawk Down (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Ridley Scott
viewed: 07/31/06

Despite the fact that I do not particularly like War films, I had had this movie in my rental queue for almost four years.  The incident that it depicts, the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters in the city of Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993, was a turning point in the Clinton administration regarding U.S. support in critical conflicts around the globe and a start to a renewed isolationism attitude that held strong for a short time afterward.

I think that this event happened at a time in my life when I was just beginning to follow world news but I had never had a great grasp on the event or the actions surrounding it.  It had interested me from a historical standpoint, and while seeing a fictionalized narrative depiction of events is not necessarily the truest way to get to genuine understanding of what happened, it was also interesting to see the interpretation of it all.

I moved this to the top of my queue when a conversation at work about Ridley Scott’s filmography came up and I was saying how he really only had two great movies and beyond that was a competent filmmaker, but not much else.  Two friends raised this film as a strong contender against that train of thought, so since it had been lined up for so long, I decided to give it a whirl.

The film tries to take a non-political slant, but rather tell the story from the perspective of the soldiers that lived through it or died through it.  And it is fairly successful in that.  The film has many central characters and none that truly dominate the spotlight.  The fear and chaos is depicted in a visceral way.  The situation that the soldiers find themselves in is inherently impossible and fraught with untold peril.  And yet, the reason that everything goes wrong starts small and spirals into two days of bloody combat. The film is gritty and quite bloody and gruesome, as per the average War film of these days. But it’s also interesting viewing the beautiful beaches from the helicopters as the soldiers comment on how it would be a great place to vacation if they were here for other reasons.

I’d say that the film is well-intended and not without merits from its perspective approach.  Most of the soldiers have no idea what the mission in Somalia is about, why they are there, though they understand the futility that they face in dropping supplies to starving people that are fought over and ultimately stolen by the feudal warlord who holds them all in their worst.  Only Josh Hartnett’s character believes in the goal of the mission of mercy, but even he seems at a loss to fully defend it.

In the end the film doesn’t really question whether the soldiers belonged there or the fact that beyond the humanitarian goals, that they also were seeking “regime change” and the mission in which they became imbroglio’ed in was one in which they sought to take down the warlord and his senior officers.

With the world situation being what it is at present, with the Bush administration and the Middle East and everything, it is a challenging question to ask what the role of the U.S. should be in the outer parts of the world, especially an increasingly small world in which all places connect and impact one another.  It’s too much to get into and far too complex to solve, but echoing back a decade to this event is telling, especially considering the damage that it did to Clinton’s position in world affairs.

It’s a good film.  And interesting, if not as challenging and complex as it could have been on such a subject.