Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Movies & Madness
Before DVD and VHS, a film lived or died by its theatrical run. Sure, a revival theater might be able to provide a small audience with the opportunity to see a rare film, or maybe even expose them to the body of work from a particularly interesting filmmaker. But, by and large, most films (after being released, or denied release) had nowhere to go but the shelf. Broadcast TV was the only ancillary market available at the time, and commercial TV certainly was not going to air rare gems or foreign films in prime time. All that changed in 1974 when Z Channel -- one of the country's first pay cable stations – was launched in Los Angeles. By 1980, the Z Channel had become one of the most influential forces in cinema, thanks to the decisions of its maverick head of programming Jerry Harvey. The Z Channel's uniqueness (which included not only an eclectic mix of foreign, independent, rare and commercial films; but also pioneering efforts in showing fully restored "director's cuts" of films; and on-air film festivals) was attributed to Harvey and his staff's determination, diverse taste and encyclopedic knowledge of cinema. The 2004 documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession chronicles Harvey's emergence as a brilliant programmer, but it also explores his emotional and psychological descent, which eventually resulted in him murdering his wife and turning the gun on himself (and the end of Z Channel itself). The film celebrates the importance and influence of this channel within the film industry, but it doesn't ask enough questions about whether such an obsession could have led to Harvey's spiral into madness. There's a sadness to the fact that such an important chapter in the history of modern cinema is marred by the personal demons of the man who led the revolution. The documentary includes interviews with directors Jim Jarmusch, Robert Altman, Alexander Payne, Quentin Tarantino, and others, who describe, with great sincerity and emotion, what the Z Channel meant to them. Noticeably missing from the film though is director Michael Cimino, who befriended Harvey after Z Channel ran the uncut version of his much maligned Heaven's Gate, saving it from critical oblivion. (It did the same for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America.) Today, in the era of DVD, "director's cut" versions of films are taken for granted, but the Z Channel was a pioneer in proving that releasing restored versions of films to the public was a commercial viable venture. Like the films Harvey dug up for the Z channel, this documentary is a treasure that should be in the collection of every film fan.