‘Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession’

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004) documentary
Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004) documentary

When I first got a copy of this documentary back in April, I had this strange feeling that I’d heard of Z Channel. However, I had no idea what it was, it just seemed vaguely familiar. Like I’d heard it somewhere before, but had no memory of where or in what context. So when I watched the documentary, it was a completely new experience for me.

Z Channel was one of the first cable channels during the late 1970s and 1980s that aired only in the Los Angeles area, so my ignorance of its existence has a logic. I grew up on the east coast, and while I loved movies, I didn’t even have cable until I was a teenager. So there really wasn’t any way I could have seen it, but after having watched Xan Cassavetes’ Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, I wish I had.

The eclectic array of films that were presented on Z Channel was extraordinary, and the rise and fall of the channel is ultimately connected to its most famous — or perhaps infamous — programmer, Jerry Harvey. It is this fine line between these two stories that Z Channel skirts, and skirts well.

Jerry Harvey was a film lover and programmer who headed Z Channel at the height of its popularity throughout most of the 1980s. Its success, which rivaled that of HBO and Showtime, was largely accredited to him and his varied film tastes. He helped save or make the careers of such artists as Michael Chimino, James Woods, and Paul Verhoven. His involvement in presenting such a wide array of films also helped develop the idea of “director’s cuts”, which has become something of a staple in the film industry today.

However, his tragic murder/suicide completely altered the perception of the man for most people, and without him Z Channel slowly faded into obscurity. However, Z Channel, the documentary, brings this often forgotten chapter of television history back to light.

For the most part, the documentary is fairly engrossing. It’s perfectly balanced between the highs and lows of Harvey’s life, but never strays too far away from the main subject, which is the channel itself. The effect it had on many filmmakers and individual movies is impressive, and the pure scope of films it showed is amazing. Undoubtedly you would never find something like it on cable now, because it really wasn’t about one type of movie or another. It was basically about everything and anything, and that was its charm.

However, while the information about Z Channel is interesting, you are ultimately drawn the to tragic story of Jerry Harvey. This is where most of the film’s drama lies, and it is sad to see how this man who seemed so creative could ultimately destroy himself. And the anger of those who knew him is still visually palpable. Throughout the film there is an audio interview of him which is creepy in how it seems to sound like he is talking from the grave.

My only problem with Z Channel is, aside from the Harvey story, the film doesn’t offer much after the first hour. It moves from one film to another that was shown and championed by Harvey and the channel, but it gets a little repetitive. None of these bits really differ much, so the film ends up becoming a bit dry.

Still, Z Channel’s mark on the film industry, and cable television, is made clear in the documentary. The tragedy is not only limited to the death of Jerry Harvey, but the way in which such an important piece of history like Z Channel seemed to have been discarded and virtually forgotten. If nothing else, Xan Cassevetes should be congratulated for bringing it back into the public consciousness.

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