Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (USA, director Xan Cassavetes): The daughter of the late filmmaker John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowlands, Xan (Alexandra) Cassavetes grew up surrounded by the culture of film. But in her teens, she began to form her own taste, thanks in part to an innovative Los Angeles area cable channel. Z Channel began in 1974, long before there was a Blockbuster Video on every block, and it showed both neglected American films as well as the greats of European cinema. Xan set out to make a straight documentary about the channel, and in the process found a whole other story.
Jerry Harvey was a film geek’s film geek. He joined Z Channel in 1980 after programming films for a local arthouse cinema. Under Harvey’s direction, Z Channel really took off, competing against heavyweights like HBO. While remaining a local treasure, Z Channel’s influence was disproportionate to its subscriber base, since so many filmmakers lived in the LA area. Harvey was a friend and champion of such filmmakers as Sam Peckinpah, Henry Jaglom, Michael Cimino, Robert Altman, and Paul Verhoeven, and was one of the first to show “director’s cuts” of such misunderstood films as Heaven’s Gate, Once Upon A Time In America, and The Wild Bunch. But he was also a deeply troubled man. His obsessive nature fuelled his work, but it often led to bouts of crushing depression. His mood swings culminated in a terrible tragedy in 1988 when he killed his wife and then took his own life. Remembrances from his friends are still fraught with grief and anger, more than fifteen years later.
While at first, I wondered if I were seeing two films (a portrait of Jerry Harvey, and an appreciation of overlooked films), I realized that the beauty of Cassavetes’ film is that she’s celebrating the life and achievements of Jerry Harvey by talking about some of the films that he brought to her attention through Z Channel. Not his tragic end, but what came before. So often, when a life ends in tragedy or violence, we only remember that part. Sure, you could call Harvey a murderer. But he was also an incredible film lover and filmmaker’s advocate, someone who had a wide ranging influence as well as a group of loyal friends who are still reeling from his loss.
Z Channel only lasted about a year after Harvey’s death, and the many people interviewed (Quentin Tarantino, James Woods, Theresa Russell, Paul Verhoeven, Robert Altman, and Jacqueline Bisset among them) seem almost as wistful about the death of a certain era in cable television as of their friend Jerry Harvey.
P.S. It seems fitting that I should end my 2004 Toronto International Film Festival experience with a film about a TV channel that director Henry Jaglom described as “like a film festival in your house every night.”