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.

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