Wednesday, September 07, 2005

It Came From Netflix! Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

Back before HBO and Showtime, when cable TV was just in its infancy, there was a local service in the Los Angeles area called the Z Channel. Because the channel serviced the Hollywood area, it was immensely influential in the industry.

This documentary is both a history of the service and a biography of Jerry Harvey, the channel’s programmer. Harvey was a true film fanatic, literally obsessed with movies, and his passion for good films of all stripes made the Z Channel a connoisseur’s dream, pioneering not only an immensely wide selection of films, both foreign and domestic, classics, recent blockbusters, skin flicks (being ahead of the curve on the sort of movie “Cinemax Late Night” made famous), horror movies, everything, from the most famous to the incredibly obscure. Frankly, it sounds like it was a damn fine service.

Aside from the boggling array of movies—we see some brief glimpses of the line-ups, and it was amazing—the Channel was also way ahead of the curve on many issues we take for granted, showing films uncut, uninterrupted, letterboxed and even featuring restored versions of films that had been reedited prior to release.

It must be remembered—as weird as it will sound to my younger readers (both of them)—that back in the day once a movie left the theaters you never got to see unedited version of it. Movies shown on broadcast TV were almost always cut for time and/or content, and there was no other mechanism for seeing them, no cable, no videocassettes, nothing. If you lived in a big city there were revival theaters, but that was it. The very idea of seeing unedited movies in your home was a huge selling point for videocassettes back when they began selling movies that way.

The film is about film lovers made for film lovers, and many famous people do interviews on the Channel and Harvey, including Robert Altman, Jim Jarmusch, the inevitable Quentin Tarantino and James Woods, who’s career was catapulted when Z Channel showcased Oliver Stone’s El Salvador after it had quickly bombed in theaters. The screenings allowed members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts to see it, and Woods subsequently won the Best Actor Oscar for the film, largely because of these showings.

The documentary is generous with clips from many films, especially the ones that Z Channel pretty much solely brought before the public, such as the reconstructed director’s cuts of Heaven’s Gate and Once Upon a Time in America, which had been butchered by the studios. One way you know the movie is working is that it makes you want to track down the films we see clips of.

The Channel was also famous for its programming magazine, a deluxe monthly periodical featuring occasionally acerbic critical reviews and essays that apparently were compulsively readable.

Of course, eventually such an enterprise had to fall to national competitors, but sadly the tale is darker than that. Jerry Harvey ended up murdering his wife, and then killing himself. Most of the interview subjects knew Harvey and seem reluctant to pass judgment on him—mental problems ran in the family, and his sister had committed suicide some years earlier—but I must admit, the fact that he killed his spouse kind of reduced any sympathy I might have had for him.

Still, a very good documentary. DVD and cable have really been a boon to the form, and given that almost anything can be the subject of a good documentary if its done right, hopefully more people will start getting into them.


At 2:52 PM, Blogger baby copernicus said...

For a split second I thought those were plates instead of film cans and that this film was about someone else.

At 2:58 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Yes, he does look like he just ate an enormous meal, doesn't he?

At 6:03 PM, Anonymous TV's Grady said...

Less power and stop spamming!

At 10:55 AM, Blogger Triviachamp said...

Actually the film was called Salvador and James Woods lost to Paul Newman.

I believe Annie Hall was showed on the Z channel before the Oscars so it probably had a major impact there!

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