STUDIO: Hart Sharp Video Llc

MSRP: $24.99

RUNNING TIME: 120 Minutes


• Extra Interviews
• Photo Gallery Montage
• On the Film Scene with Film Critic Charles Champlin
• "Castaway’s Choice" radio interview with Jerry Harvey by radio host John McNally
• AFI Tribute to Z with panelists Oliver Stone and James Woods
• Audio Commentary with Director, Producers, Editors

Do you know exactly when your love of movies began? It might be easy to remember your first conscious experience in a movie theater (mine was Star Wars, but I don’t think it was the first film I was taken to, just the first one I was old enough to watch). It’s a little more difficult to understand, or explain, what set of experiences caused you to become a movie fanatic. My household had HBO by the time I was eight years old. Back then, HBO was cable. There weren’t any other channels in my town. Just the name Home Box Office excited me. I saw The Tin Drum when I was nine or ten and it scared the shit out of me. I remember quickly flipping past the picture of a smiling Jack Nicholson from The Shining in the monthly mini-magazine I knew as “The HBO Guide” because the picture intimidated me. That is the time, or so I have reasoned, when my love of movies began. At my young age, I’m not sure I realized that such a thing as cable TV didn’t always exist. I was very fortunate to have grown up during those early years of cable programming. What made me less fortunate is that I did not grow up in Southern California during the 70’s and 80’s when Z Channel, one of the first premium cable channels in California, was putting films on TV just like HBO did, but in a much more personal and artistic way. Xan Cassavetes (daughter of director John) pays homage to her childhood in front of the tube by directing the documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession about the channel and the mad genius who was the driving force behind its programming, Jerry Harvey. More than a documentary about a cable station, it’s a respectful and romantic compilation of movie clips and interviews with some of the people who were affected by the channel and by Harvey’s fiery dedication to unheralded films.

News for recently-awakened coma sufferers.

The Flick

In 1980, the managers at Z Channel, one of only a few movie subscription services in California, were looking for some new blood to shake up their programming schedule. An intelligent young man named Jerry Harvey had built a quick reputation by booking special engagement showings of classic films at the Beverly Canon Theater in Los Angeles, including the uncut version of The Wild Bunch delivered personally by Sam Peckinpah. Harvey had subsequently written a couple of letters to another cable movie channel, Select TV, complaining about their lousy programming. The letters impressed programmer Bill Mechanic, who recognized Harvey’s knowledge of films and hired Harvey on the spot. Z Channel pulled Harvey away from Select TV and rewarded him only a few weeks after hiring him with the head programming job when the previous manager fell ill and left.

The approximate number of people killed by Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch.

Harvey immediately set out to break new ground in cable television programming by hunting down incredible, rarely-seen films from a variety of sources. He contacted several directors of various levels of notoriety to ask if he could play their movies on his channel. His taste in films seemed to have no boundaries, nor did his energy in pursuing them. He wanted to present a wide range of films, from French comedies to obscure war movies to some of the less famous films by well-known directors like Peckinpah and Robert Altman. Harvey refused to shy away from any genre. He showed blockbusters like The Empire Strikes Back and certified flops like Heaven’s Gate. Harvey not only presented the theatrical films, he made the effort to show films heavily edited by the studios in the form intended by their creators. Harvey spearheaded the search for an intact print of the full cut of Heaven’s Gate and spotlighted it as a four-hour special on Z Channel. He gave the same treatment to several other movies as well, including Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Harvey showed extreme loyalty to the directors he loved, and his dedication to providing high quality and challenging entertainment paid off for Z Channel. At the height of its popularity, Z Channel had over 100,000 paying subscribers and overshadowed the more commercially-oriented subscription services provided by HBO and Showtime in California.

If you love your film cans, you always crotch buff them before putting them away.

After much success, the fortunes of Z Channel and Harvey took a bizarre turn in the late 80’s. Competition from the much larger pay movie services and pressure from Z Channel executives to accept smaller and smaller budgets combined with Harvey’s inner demons to overwhelm the man and his work. Alcohol abuse and untreated psychological problems plagued him as well. A man who lives his life through films often succumbs to the tragic story arcs that are his lifeblood. In Harvey’s case, the story ended abruptly with a murder/suicide. Z Channel’s subsequent death was much less violent, but without Harvey’s creative tunnel vision the channel didn’t stand a chance.

The story of Z Channel is told through interviews with former Z Channel employees, including movie critic and co-producer of the documentary F.X. Feeney, one of Harvey’s closest friends. Other interviews include directors and actors who owed some of their success to Harvey’s efforts to bring their films into the spotlight and several members of a new generation of filmmakers who had the good fortune to experience Z Channel’s programming excellence as youngsters. Quentin Tarantino discusses the fact that his family couldn’t get the service in his neighborhood and how he eagerly solicited videotapes of the channel’s offerings from a friend who could get it. Interwoven with the interview segments are dozens of clips of the films aired on Z Channel and haunting audio clips of a radio interview with Harvey played against grainy, sun-bleached shots of vintage scenery.

At the Wayside Diner, the pies are fresh but the waitresses are not.

Cassavetes and her crew focus on their love of films as much as the story of the independent-minded cable channel and its programming wiz. Harvey’s shocking death serves to illustrate the loss we all feel when some small but special program is taken away or distorted by the big, bad world of greed that pervades much of the entertainment industry. It is rare to find a diversion seemingly tailored to our personal tastes that outlives our desire for it. Cassavetes deserves much praise for her ability to capture the pleasures of a by-gone era so eloquently. You’re gonna want to have a pen and paper or an open text document handy while watching this. Make a list of the films you see highlighted here, or if you buy the DVD, look on the back of the included booklet, and set aside some time to watch some of them. The overriding theme of Cassavetes’ film is a simple one: if cable providers don’t offer you the level of programming you deserve with 700 channels, turn to your DVD player, VCR or local art house theater for solace. Open your mind to undiscovered realms of the film world and develop your own magnificent obsession.

9.0 out of 10

Ralph smiled through the pain as seventeen bobby pins pierced his scalp.

The Look

So many sources were used in the creation of Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, from modern interview segments to rare film footage culled from archival videos. Nothing about the DVD transfer detracts from the viewing experience. Presented in anamorphic widescreen, the doc looks great, especially in its presentation of the various films Z Channel made famous.

9.0 out of 10

By, for and about zee Germans.

The Noise

The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is sufficient for this type of material. Sure, we always want to hear a Star Wars movie in spectacular surround sound even when it’s a small clip, but that’s not really the point here. There were not any significant problems with the audio, but the radio interview segments were a bit muffled at times, most likely due to the source recording involved.

8.0 out of 10

What a West Coast infant in a runaway stroller sees.

The Goodies

Hart Sharp Video put together a very respectable package for this film. Whether it was due to the talent involved in the production and interview segments or the fact that the film was named an official selection of the Cannes Film Festival, we all win with the multitude of extra features included here. The commentary track with Cassavetes, Producers Rick Ross and Marshall Persinger, Director of Photography John Pirozzi, Associate Producer Jonathan Montepare, Editor Iain Kennedy and Assistant Editor Gabriel Reed covers a lot of ground, from their initial desires to create the film to the problems they had securing film clips, among other topics. What comes across from the entire group is an intense devotion to the films on display. Cassavetes’ disarmingly-sexy voice leads the group in several toasts as some of her favorite films and actors appear on screen. Their camaraderie is infectious, and at several points hilarious as they discuss how they considered reenacting the scenes from the movies they wanted to exhibit instead of paying enormous sums for the clip rights.

A heap of manure with Kathleen Turner nudity is a great heap indeed.

The second disc contains a healthy amount of extra interview clips with some pretty amazing stories that would have added to the richness of the film had they been edited in, but would have taken away from its focus on Harvey and Z Channel. Also included is the entire 30-minute radio interview with Harvey conducted by John McNally for a segment known as “Castaway’s Choice”. Harvey’s introversion and dry wit are highlights of the interview, as well as his choices for a top ten list of songs he would take with him on a deserted island, including, not surprisingly, many tracks from movies. The disc also includes a short segment on Z Channel’s weekly feature “On the Film Scene with Charles Champlin” during which the movie critic would interview a Hollywood star, director or producer. A short film called “AFI Tribute to Z” shows clips from a day-long panel discussion with people involved with or helped by the channel, including actors James Woods and Kris Kristofferson. Oliver Stone appears in one shot, but he doesn’t say anything. A photo gallery with images from the Z Magazine rounds out the DVD features. The prize of the package in my eyes is the 24-page booklet that is a reproduction of the monthly Z Magazine. It shows the care Z Channel took in presenting its films by including lengthy synopses and cast lists for each film. It is a trip down memory lane for the kid in me who used to tear through the new movie guide from HBO as soon as it arrived each month.

9.8 out of 10

In 1984, the future of lust looked very bright.

The Artwork

The image of Harvey sheltered in a film vault by high shelves full of film reels says a lot about the man and his personality. It also evokes an era in films that has quickly passed away. Looking at a canister of film makes a movie seem bulky or larger than life, and maybe that’s fitting, because films are large. We shouldn’t forget, when libraries full of films are someday transferred to a single optical disc the size of a penny, that movies are positively gigantic to a lot of people who love them.

8.0 out of 10

Overall: 9.0 out of 10