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Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession
featuring: Robert Altman, James Woods, Jim Jarmusch, Alan Rudolph, and Quentin Tarantino

director: Alexandra Cassavetes

120 minutes (15) 2004
widescreen ratio 16:9
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail
[released 3 September]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
There are two ways to enjoy Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession - first, as a documentary account of the tragic career and obsessive achievements of Jerry Harvey, its most famous and influential head of programming, who largely made it into the cultural force that it was; and second, as an stimulating and unpredictable run through of some cult-ish byways of cinema, offering a chance to re-evaluate or discover for yourself some titles which the channel originally helped to resurface.

Z Channel was one of the first pay cable channels in the United States. Although it only ever reached a few hundred thousand subscribers in its defined catchment area, this was never the less a significant constituency of viewers, as it took in Los Angeles, California. Z Channel's principal innovations and influence can be traced to the care and attention it took with broadcast cinema, a genuine sensibility and affection for the art form which kept it consistently ahead of a couple of jealous, larger rivals. Films on Z were typically transmitted full length, a process which was instrumental in kick-starting the current educated taste for director's cuts, and uninterrupted by adverts. The station had genuine seasons by directors whose work, both famous and obscure, was given the best possible showcase in a (still treasured) programme guide sent to subscribers.

Through his scheduling, Harvey showed he had a nose for the unworthily neglected, uncharitably reviled and too hastily forgotten, proving this by broadcasting the complete versions of such films as 1900, Heaven's Gate (1980), as well as the full TV versions of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), and Das Boot (1981). High and low culture rubbed filmic shoulders in the schedules as equals as Z's eclectic programming combined art house classics with unexpected sleepers, as well as the less cultural delights of its 'midnight movies' which gave viewers access to the pretensions of European softcore cinema.

In short, Z channel was close to a cineaste's paradise amidst the comparative wasteland of contemporary American television, and one whose influence extended to Tinsel-town opinion-formers. One concrete example of this for instance, was Harvey's championing of the previously ignored Salvador (1986) - to which can be largely attributed actor James Woods' academy nomination for his previously ignored performance. The role call of Z Channel's influence goes on and on, as in the light of various uncut broadcasts some critics were obliged to reverse their initial judgements of films formerly butchered by the studios, as in the case of Once Upon A Time in America (1984), where the cut and uncut versions of Leone's masterpiece were shown back to back, providing something of a revelation.

Z Channel was right to give itself a pat on the back in many instances, and anoraks like myself will relish a run through some its memorable repertoire in retrospect. Some film titles, of which tantalising clips of which are shown like those from Overlord (1975) I found myself scribbling down to try and track down later. Of others, like The Sicilian (1987), it's kinder perhaps to say that the jury is still out, but at least the station's provocative and imaginative programming gave such interesting films by major directors a chance to find their own feet.

In many ways the jury is still out on Jerry Harvey too, although there would be no doubt as to its verdict as least as far as his final hours are concerned as, suffering from drug abuse, professional stress and mental instability, the illustrious head of programming shot his wife and then himself in 1988. By all accounts an obsessive workaholic, this son of a cold, fundamentalist father, eccentric, confidant to major directors and, finally, murderer, would have made a good subject for a film himself. Z Channel does a reasonable good task of reconstructing such a striking character as a man, although the lack of diaries, and more than a single interview source, used sparingly but tellingly, is a handicap. Despite his final acts - and one suspects that Harvey was far crueller to his intimates on a personal level than is made of here - it is a documentary understandably full of praise for his achievements, and from such luminaries as the late Robert Altman, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, and the like. It creates an interesting account of a man who still remains largely unknown, at least outside the US, bit whose legacy is always going to be less that of a man than of a cultural arbiter.

If there's a weakness to Z Channel, then it stems from a lack of focus at its centre, not entirely surprising given the range of disparate programming the station carried, one which gives a lot of ground to cover even in close to two hours. Harvey was particularly close to two major directors, Michael Cimino and Sam Peckinpah (the latter to the extent that Harvey quoted from Ride The High Country during his wedding ceremony). In fact his association with Peckinpah, whom he knew closely towards the end of his career and saw him almost as 'family', would make up a study in itself; one wishes that the documentary could have included more detailed information of the terms of their relationship. Peckinpah is dead of course, and so could add nothing to the account. But Cimino is alive and well, and his absence from an extended consideration of his friend's career is to be regretted. A contribution by someone who had known Harvey so well, and had experienced his support and mentorship at first hand would have brought a welcome, further dimension to the film. Its absence is peculiar and makes one wonder if, somewhere, there is an unspoken element of bitterness glossed over in the telling.

Z Channel is well worth catching if you are at all interested in the cinema of the 1980s, and especially in those films that had to struggle to find their reputation at the time. It provides something of a treasure trove of clips, and illuminates an important sideline of cinematic history that should be better known. At a time of wall-to-wall satellite cinema channels, mini film 'seasons' on TV and all the cultural aspirations of the executives we see transmitted today, it also serves as a useful reminder of where it all started, how it worked out, and the price it wrought on one man.

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession includes some interesting if relatively short extras, notably an amusing account of a meeting between Peckinpah and Fellini, a moving one of Orson Welles' viewing of the reconstructed Touch Of Evil (seen just before he died), an AFI tribute to Z Channel and, best of all, a 30-minute radio interview with Harvey himself.

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