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Movies are my life
A UK region 2 DVD review of Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION by Slarek
 
'In a way, what Z Channel was, and what Jerry did, is it became an
alternative voice, a voice which said "Not only are you wrong, but here's
WHY you're wrong. Here's how it should play, and here's how they played
it." And then they shut up. Because a picture's worth a million words.'
Filmmaker Stuart Cooper on Z Channel's screening of the
restored cuts of films alongside the studio butchered versions

 

Picture the scene. You're living in Los Angeles, the heart of the mainstream movie industry, it's the early 1980s and you have a deep yearning to see more than what Hollywood has to offer. There are films out there that you are aching to watch, foreign language works, cult movies, forgotten classics, but you just can't get hold of them. Home video is in its infancy, DVD is a couple of decades away, and there just aren't the art house cinemas you'd find in New York. What do you do? Well lucky you, there's a local cable channel that will not just cater to your needs, it will change your viewing habits forever. Welcome to Z Channel.

If you're a UK native there's a good chance you'll never have heard of Z Channel, and you'll probably mispronounce it. Cultural differences of language aside – I say Zed and you say Zee – as an American institution it warrants American pronunciation. Started in 1974, it offered an alternative to the terrestrial and even other cable channels, but really came into its own in 1980 when a young film enthusiast named Jerry Harvey was employed as a programmer. Actually, calling Harvey an enthusiast is to seriously understate the case – he ate, drank and breathed film, driving his first wife to distraction by quoting dialogue from Dr. Strangelove for a solid week, and the vows of his second marriage a word-for-word quote from Ride the High Country.

A walking encyclopaedia of cinema, Harvey would chase down films on the basis of a rumour or the involvement of a particular filmmaker or its reputation abroad and screen them, sometimes in seasons showcasing the work of a specific director or actor. His determination to restore and show the full 219 minute cut of Michael Cimino's much maligned Heaven's Gate was the first of many such screenings of original and director's cuts of films that had been previously messed about by studios or distributors, kick-starting a trend that, with the arrival of DVD, has almost become an industry in itself. But despite his passion and commitment to his calling, Jerry Harvey was a troubled man, a self-medicating and paranoid manic depressive who on 9th April 1988 at the age of 39, murdered his second wife Deri and then killed himself.

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession is up front about this tragic conclusion to its story but wisely saves the details for later, allowing for full appreciation of Harvey's considerable achievements before delving into the darker side of his life and personality. Employing a comprehensive and busy blend of interviews and film clips, director Xan Cassavetes (daughter of John) explores the impact and legacy of Harvey's years at Z Channel and finds plenty of enthusiastic support from filmmakers, some of whom – James Woods and Paul Verhoeven amongst them – even credit Harvey's efforts as having a significant impact on their career development.

Their enthusiasm is seriously infectious, from the considered appraisals by Robert Altman, Henry Jaglom and Stuart Cooper, to Quentin Tarantino's typically rampant but still amusing fan-boy excitement, while critic F.X. Feeney, assistant programmer Tim Ryerson, former girlfriend Doreen Ringer Ross and first wife Vera Anderson lead the pack in giving us the inside story on Jerry's life and work. And I'm just sampling here – the cast list to the right of this review is unusually complete precisely to give you an idea of the range of contributors. The names might not all be self-explanatory, but believe me they all have relevant and enlightening contributions to make. It's a similar story with the of film clips, an outsider cinema fan's wet dream whose range, quantity and occasional rarity are guaranteed to add at least a couple of titles to most viewers' wish lists.

It's an enthralling story and one with with a specific appeal for movie buffs, Harvey's journey from cult movie cinema programmer to his stint at the Select TV cable channel (by way of a detailed letter of complaint, no less) to his success with Z Channel being the stuff of enthusiast dreams, particularly the lifelong friendships he struck with directors Sam Peckinpah and Michael Cimino (who is conspicuous by his absence here) along the way. The intermittent sidesteps into the darker side of Harvey's life are well timed and sensitively handled, allowing us to appreciate his work without ignoring the hurt he inflicted on those closest to him. Cassavetes steers clear of sensationalising or sentimentalising the tragedy, the emotional effect it had on those who knew and loved Harvey and Deri caught quietly but movingly by Tim Ryerson's lump-in-the-throat gulp and F.X. Feeney's fumbling of a quote in his friend's memory.

Passion runs right through Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, in its subject, its interviewees and in the production itself, and I'd seriously question the film fan qualifications of anyone who doesn't respond to that on an emotional as well as intellectual level. Comprehensive, thoroughly researched, informative and entertaining, the film also highlights a painful irony of modern television, that despite the seemingly infinite number of channels available, we could only dream of sitting down in front of something half as exciting as the Z Channel today.

sound and vision

The film was shot on DVC-Pro, which was transferred to HD and then to film. I'm not sure what master the print here was taken from but it looks damned fine, with the sharpness, colour and contrast all of a high order. The film extracts vary in quality depending on the source, but the majority are in excellent shape – care has clearly been taken to showcase them at premium quality and in their correct aspect ratio. The film itself was has been transferred 1.78:1 and is anamorphically enhanced.

Dolby 2.0 stereo only on the sound, but it's a clear and well mixed track and compliments the film well enough.

extra features

Filmmakers' Commentary
Now if the idea of a filmmakers' commentary on a documentary that consists largely of interviews and film clips sounds a little redundant then this one could well change your mind. Director Xan Cassavetes is joined by editor Iain Kennedy, assistant editor Gabrielle Reed, producer Marshall Persinger, associate producer Jonathan Montepare and cameraman John Pirozzi, and listening in is akin to sharing a room with a group of informed, enthusiastic and thoroughly likeable film devotees. It's a lively track with only a couple of dead spots (and I can't help but suspect censorship for legal reasons here) that supplies plenty of background on the production itself, some glass-raising appreciation of the work of the interviewees and filmmakers (including a respectful cheer for the work of the Criterion Collection) and some useful expansion on points covered in the film. Cassavetes in particular displays an enjoyable passion for her subject – she goes audibly weak at the knees over Theresa Russell's screen sexuality – and an angry contempt for the current corporate state of the American film and TV industry. Following a remark by one of her colleagues on how cool it was that people could then be hired on the basis of their knowledge and enthusiasm alone, she retorts: "Unlike today, when you have to be a backstabbing, manipulative, calculating, ambitious asshole to get a job." Right on.

Peckinpah Meets Fellini (2:15)
A cut interview that tells a priceless story of a bizarre meeting between Sam Peckinpah and Federico Fellini in Venice.

AFI Tribute to Z with Panelists Oliver Stone and James Woods (3:36)
A cut sequence that includes brief footage from the AFI tribute of the title. Stone is caught only in passing, but Woods gets enjoyably pissed off at studio determination to run the likes of Z Channel out of business.

On the Film Scene with Critic Charles Champlin (1:49)
Another cut scene in which Charles Champlin talks about the interview show he hosted on Z Channel, whose impressive line-up of guests would give The Actor's Studio a run for its money.

Touch of Evil (1:19)
A short but important interview that recalls Z Channel's screening of the 'long version' of Welles' magnificent Touch of Evil, which Welles himself expressed happiness with shortly before his death.

30 Minute Radio Interview with Jerry Harvey (25:21)
The complete Castaway's Choice interview with Harvey (minus music tracks), extracts of which pepper the film itself. It's a surprisingly compelling listen, although this is no doubt partly due to an awareness of subsequent events. Harvey's soft spoken, almost withdrawn enthusiasm is the complete opposite of Tarantino's hand-waving excitement but every bit as genuine. Perhaps the most memorable moment, which is used in the film itself, is when host John McNally asks his guest if there is anything in his life that doesn't revolve around film and receives the bemused answer, "What do you mean?"

summary

An absolute must for film fans – and I'm talking true film fans here not Hollywood junkies – Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession is true to its title, celebrating the compulsion that for a brief period created what may have been the finest film channel cinema enthusiasts will ever see. The up side is that Harvey's artistic legacy lives on in the fine restoration work being carried out for DVD by the likes of Criterion, Masters of Cinema and in the efforts of dedicated independent distributors around the world. Metrodome's DVD is a must for the like minded, a fine transfer complimented by some worthwhile extras, notably that lively and enjoyable commentary track. Recommended.

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

USA 2004
117 mins
director
Xan Cassavetes
starring
Robert Altman
Vera Anderson
C.L. Batten
Jacqueline Bisset
Charles Champlin
David Chasman
F.X. Feeney
James B. Harris
Jerry Harvey
Don Hyde
Henry Jaglom
Jim Jarmush
Charles H. Joffe
Bill Mechanic
Ned Nalle
Akexander Payne
Doreen Ringer Ross
Chuck Ross
Alan Rudolph
Theresa Russell
Timothy Ryerson
Jeff Schwager
Penelope Spheeris
Bob Strock
Quentin Tarantino
Kevin Thomas
Jonathan Turell
Douglas Venturelli
Paul Verhoeven
James Woods
Vilmos Zsigmond

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
English
subtitles .
none
extras
Filmmakers' commentary
Deleted scenes
Radio interview with Jerry Harvey
distributor
Metrodome
release date
3 September 2007
review posted
2 September 2007

See all of Slarek's reviews