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Laramie Movie Scope:
Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

A channel with a cult-like following

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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February 3, 2005 -- This documentary about a legendary L.A. cable channel looks back very fondly on Z Channel, which helped launch the modern independent film movement in the U.S., and its crazy programming director, Jerry Harvey.

Z Channel, founded in 1974 was a precursor to current cable channels like the Independent Film Channel, the Sundance Channel, American Movie Classics and others, but more eclectic than any of them. It was one of the country's first pay cable channels.

When Harvey took over as programming director in 1981 he began to program movies that weren't being shown anywhere else. The movies featured included foreign films, soft core porn, westerns, classics, mainstream films, and obscure little films that most people had forgotten ever existed.

Since the Z channel was watched by a number of influential Hollywood suits, including heads of studios, the channel came to have a huge influence on the industry. It was able, for instance, to singlehandedly resurrect the film “El Salvador” and garner several Academy Award Nominations after it had been forgotten by the Hollywood establishment. This is the ultimate fantasy for a film critic: to have your own TV channel in Hollywood and to be able to use that channel to influence the direction of the film industry. Despite all this influence, Z Channel covered only a small territory, just a part of Los Angeles.

Z Channel also created the phenomenon of director's cuts of films by restoring cut footage to films like “Heaven's Gate,” “The Leopard,” “Once Upon a Time in America” and “1900” which had been butchered by bad editing designed simply to allow the film to be shown more times each day in theaters. Z Channel also pioneered film festivals on cable.

Unfortunately, Jerry Harvey, in addition to being a genius at programming and promoting films, was also a severely mentally disturbed man, who possessed both a hair-trigger temper and a gun, which proved to be a lethal combination. Z Channel lasted only a year after Harvey murdered his wife and committed suicide. Even if Harvey had lived, Z Channel probably would have died anyway. It was being squeezed out of existence by HBO and other large competitors. In fact, Z Channel had launched a lawsuit alleging its competitors were illegally limiting its access to movies. Harvey would have been a key witness in the case had he lived.

The film is well-crafted by director Alexandra Cassavetes (daughter of independent film legend John Cassavetes). It is a tribute both to her and Z Channel that a number of true Hollywood A-listers appear in interviews, including directors Robert Altman, Jim Jarmusch, Paul Verhoeven and Qeuntin Tarantino, and actors Jaqueline Bisset, Theresa Russell and James Woods. It is troubling that Harvey is portrayed as a hero in the film, even though he was a murderer. The film does provide some balance on this subject, however by quoting people who cannot forgive Harvey for the crimes he committed on the last day of his life. The film leaves it up to the viewer as to which legacy Harvey should be remembered for, a crazed killer or the mind behind Z Channel.

What comes across most is the deep affection that viewers continue to have for this pioneering cable channel and the gratitude of directors, actors, producers and others who were helped by Harvey's movie obsession. This film rates a B.

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Copyright © 2005 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)