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Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

Arts Alliance America // R // October 11, 2005
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Preston Jones | posted October 9, 2005 | E-mail the Author
"It is a mark of a good action that it appears inevitable in retrospect." - Robert Louis Stevenson

"You just never know when you're living in a golden age." – Alexander Payne, Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

The Movie

For those without an unquenchable passion for film, it can be difficult to articulate precisely what it is that inspires someone to compulsively seek out films of every genre, from every corner of the world. Hardcore cinephiles embrace it all: from Tommy Boy to Last Tango In Paris, from Knife in the Water to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, reveling in the range of emotions and textures of cinema can often be mistaken for merely being unable to differentiate between good and bad. Jerry Harvey was a man who understood those subtle nuances as well as film's intoxicating capabilities and in the early Eighties, helped nurture Z Channel, a place where movies of practically every stripe could find a warm, welcoming home and a tireless champion.

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession is the absorbing account of the rise and fall of the fledgling cable channel, which came of age in 1970's Los Angeles during the nascent pay-TV wars that dominated much of the Eighties; current staples such as HBO, Showtime and The Movie Channel cut their teeth (and took some of their cues) from watching Harvey's passionately idiosyncratic brand of programming. Director Alexandra Cassavetes (Xan, for short, is the daughter of John Cassavetes) chronicles Harvey's rapid rise to the position of Z Channel programming director in 1980, where he orchestrated mini film festivals celebrating then-unknown auteurs such as Paul Verhoeven and Wolfgang Petersen, helped promulgate the concept of director's cuts (Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate was one of the first films to benefit from this now commonplace re-tooling) and rescued obscure, critically acclaimed and previously unseen films from oblivion, such as Stuart Cooper's World War II drama Overlord, Wolfgang Petersen's uncut Das Boot and Nicolas Roeg's fragmented psychosexual thriller Bad Timing.

But for all Harvey did to win the adulation of filmmakers the world over, there was a darker, more tragic side to his story. Harvey is perhaps most notorious for having murdered his wife, Deri, and then turning the gun on himself in April 1988 – this shocking event signaled the end of an era, as Z Channel soon went under and the ascension of content-hungry pay channels such as the aforementioned HBO, Cinemax and eventually, niche-fillers like the Independent Film Channel (on which this film aired in mid-2005, as part of a Z Channel tribute) and the Sundance Channel, would help fill the void previously only tended by the small, determined West Coast station.

Cassavetes neatly maintains a dual narrative thrust throughout the two-hour film, balancing an exploration of what Z Channel meant to films and filmmakers whose vision didn't necessarily jive with the suits' and charting Harvey's emotional and psychological descent into madness and murder. Intertwining Harvey's fanatical obsession with film and constant struggles with personal demons adds depth and weight to Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, making it an ultimately poignant snapshot of a specific time and place, rather than a clip-heavy retrospective of a cult cable channel.

Eschewing a narrator, Cassavetes assembled a considerable array of Hollywood talent to speak glowingly of Harvey, his aptitude for film and his creation, as well as offer their thoughts on the mercurial cinephile; Robert Altman, Jacqueline Bisset, James B. Harris, Henry Jaglom, Jim Jarmusch, Alexander Payne, Alan Rudolph, Theresa Russell, Penelope Spheeris, Quentin Tarantino and James Woods (who fairly credits his Oscar nomination for Salvador to Harvey and Z Channel) all sit for interviews, as do Harvey's former lovers, friends and business associates, including long-time friend and Los Angeles-based film critic F.X. Feeney. Harvey himself contributes sporadic comments via a low-key radio interview from the early Eighties.

Ultimately, Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession functions as both a fantastic introduction to and fond remembrance of a time when unique, intelligent programming, featuring films that were cast aside or overdue for re-evaluation, found its way to a small, dedicated audience of cinema aficionados. Sadly, in a world of 500+ cable/satellite channels, there's nothing that quite approximates the eclectic flavor of what the storied Z Channel accomplished. Perhaps this masterful documentary, in its own way, is enough – reminding us that once, a sacred space existed where a man who instinctually understood that unrelenting cinematic craving built a place that beckoned those insatiable lovers of film.


The Video:

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession is presented in a very clean, sharp-looking 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, which blends newly shot interview footage with classic film clips (thankfully, each clip is presented in its appropriate aspect ratio, from window-boxed 1.33:1 to 2.35:1). The interviews appear to have been filmed on high-def video, while the vintage clips suffer from a bit of wear but nothing that detracts from the overall appearance.

The Audio:

Clear, distortion-free Dolby 2.0 stereo is the only audio option included – befitting a film driven by multiple interviews, dialogue is heard without incident and each film clip is free of drop-out (helpfully, the considerable selection of foreign film excerpts are presented with forced English subtitles). Optional English subtitles are also on board.

The Extras:

The first disc includes a group commentary track featuring appearances by director Cassavetes, producer Marshall Persinger, producer Rick Ross, editor Iain Kennedy, assistant editor Gabriel Reed, associate producer Jonathan Montepare and director of photography John Pirozzi. The relaxed, informative track covers a wide range of topics, from the project's origins to the logistics of tracking down footage and interviewees. A great listen.

The second disc houses additional bonus material: four featurettes (playable together or separately) are centered around accounts of the making of/Z Channel's relationship to Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (5:37), Robert Altman's 3 Women (3:43), Paul Verhoeven's Spetters (4:08) as well as the two-minute vignette "Peckinpah Meets Fellini" are included in non-anamorphic widescreen and feature ample footage from each film (in its original aspect ratio). Also included is "AFI Tribute to Z Channel," a three-minute retrospective of the 1987 event, complete with vintage videotaped footage; "On The Film Scene," a two-minute look back at the program hosted by film critic Charles Champlin on Z Channel; a 90-second exploration of the Touch of Evil restoration, which first aired on Z Channel; the complete June 1985 radio interview from John McNally's KCRW program "Castaway's Choice" excerpted in the documentary and a "Z Magazine" gallery.

Final Thoughts:

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession is a fascinating dissection of a deeply troubled man and his life's work: building a televised shrine to the mysteries and rewards of cinema. With this incredible two-disc set, director Xan Cassavetes' superb documentary is given context and further fleshed out, making it almost essential for anyone with even a passing interest in film – that alone merits inclusion in the DVD Talk Collector Series.

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