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cover: Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

Director(s): Xan Cassavetes

Theatrical Release: 2004

Cast: Robert Altman, Alexander Payne, Jim Jarmusch, Penelope Spheeris, Quentin Tarantino, Penelope Spheeris

Genre(s): Documentary, cinema, biography, TV, Dean's List

Countries: USA

Location in store: Documentary > Cinema-related Docs

(1 / 1)
Ant Rating
Running Time: 120m.

The Z Channel wasn't America's first premium cable outlet specializing in feature films, and it wasn't the most commercially successful, but few, if any, had as strong an impact on the film industry or a more influential list of customers. Based in California and blanketing sections of the state dominated by the movie business, Z Channel had been operating for several years before former screenwriter Jerry Harvey took over as head of programming in 1980. Under the guidance of Harvey and his staff, the channel became a film buff's dream, screening rare classics, important foreign films, and maverick American titles that had fallen through the cracks of commercial distribution. Harvey and his staff also programmed original and uncut versions of films which had only played American theaters in altered form (including Heaven's Gate, Once Upon a Time in America, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and The Leopard) long before the concept of the "director's cut" had currency beyond the most hardcore of film fans. And The Z Channel aggressively championed pictures they believed were overlooked, and programmed deserving Oscar-nominated movies during the Academy's voting period, years before studios began distributing video "screeners" to potential voters. (More than one industry expert has credited Z Channel's showings of Annie Hall as a key factor in the film winning Best Picture.) But Jerry Harvey was also a deeply troubled man, and when legal and economic problems began dogging the company in the late '80s, he snapped, leading to a horrible and tragic murder and suicide. The Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession is a documentary that looks at the channel's short but remarkable history as well as Harvey's damaged personal life. It includes interviews with Robert Altman, Quentin Tarantino, James Woods, Jim Jarmusch, Alexander Payne and a number of other filmmakers and critics who attest to Z Channel's lasting impact. -- Mark Deming (

Member Reviews

Yes, Magnificent. by Phasmos - July 12, 2010
Before Criterion... Before AMC... Even before HBO... There was Z. And it was good.

Has anyone on the East Coast even heard of Z Channel? I know I certainly hadn't, and I'm grateful to my pal Dave (a.k.a "Snap") for introducing me to it in the first place.

Alexandra "Xan" Cassavettes does a spectacular job of resurrecting a little-known chapter of Hollywood history and spotlighting one man's "magnificent obsession" in the process.

Jerry Harvey had only one true love: the cinema. All else was truly secondary. A graduate of UCLA, he had the advantage of access to the filmmaking community at large and befriended such luminaries as Altman and Peckinpah. He even wrote a spaghetti-style Western entitled "China 9, Liberty 37" which was eventually produced and directed by Monte Hellman.

Harvey's future seemed bright, especially when his outspoken views on the quality of programming by a fledgling pay-cable outfit called Theta brought him to the attention of that company's management. Stunned and intrigued by the upstart's encylopedic knowledge of film, Theta executives promptly hired Harvey to oversee the lineup for an eclectic outlet called "Z Channel."

Having found his calling, Harvey propmtly began networking among his industry pals, offering to them the unique opportunity of screening certain films in their original form on his new network.

By using his station to circumvent the restrictions of studio interference, Jerry Harvey invented the "director's cut." Films which had been disastrously altered by their distributing studios - films such as "Once Upon a Time in America" and "Heaven's Gate" - were seen for the first time as they were intended to be seen by their creators, with whom Harvey dealt exclusively (in some instances actually receiving original prints from the directors themselves just prior to broadcast).

For a decade, the film community of L.A. was astounded by and enamored of the passionate, indiscriminate selection of fare available on Z Channel. Harvey proudly presented established arthouse classics alongside exploitation films and big-budget blockbusters, giving each the same amount of attention and affection. Nothing was beneath his scrutiny.

The only thing wrong with this blissful vision of cinematic nirvana was: Jerry Harvey.

Having suffered from lifelong depression, Harvey - despite medication and therapy - frequently sank into debilitating bouts of misery which affected his very existence. Everything came to a crashing halt in 1988 when, in a bleak state, he shot and killed his devoted wife Deri Rudulph and then turned the gun upon himself.

Xan Cassavettes presents this story in fine fashion, focusing not only on Harvey and his fixations but also on the films themselves, recreating the "Z Channel Effect" in miniature by offering a smorgasbord of the films championed by the network in its heyday, and insights on these films by the parties involved - Altman, Henry Jaglom, Theresa Russell, Jacqueline Bisset, etc.

Cassavettes utilizes 24p video and clever post-production processing to lend a hazy, period-appropriate look to her location footage of the Los Angeles environs; an original Western-tinged guitar theme by Cruzados veteran Steven Hufsteter (who also provided the post-punk surf guitar score for Alex Cox's "Repo Man") evokes the proper mood for this tale of an aesthetic outlaw.

A phenomenal documentary that leaves you feeling as though you've attended a week-long film festival and learned something about human frailties along the way. A masterpiece.