Film Notes

'Z Channel' on the Air

Friday, May 6, 2005

ALEXANDRA "Xan" Cassavetes's "Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession" is a lively, fascinating and ultimately tragic documentary about Jerry Harvey, an impresario whose dream of championing movies great, small and forgotten was as intense as his personal demons.

After spearheading an ahead-of-its-time pay television showcase for film during the '80s, Harvey ended his life and his wife's in a murder-suicide in 1988. He shot himself and his wife, Deri Rudolph, with a gun that had been given to him by one of his friends and idols, "The Wild Bunch" director Sam Peckinpah. The film celebrates the influence of Z Channel, which was established in 1974 thanks to the vision of another great programmer, Hal Kaufman.

When Harvey took over in 1981, the Z Channel (which shut down in 1989) evolved into Los Angeles's must-see station, with a bevy of films for everyone, not just movie geeks. Z Channel showed silent films, foreign films, westerns, soft-core porn films, obscure cult flicks and B-movie pulp. And it was a pioneer of the director's cut film, bringing back many movies from the edited dead, including "1900," "The Leopard," "Heaven's Gate," "Once Upon a Time in America" and "The Wild Bunch."

Because it was watched by so many people in L.A., including significant numbers of members of the film academy, Z Channel was very influential. It was considered responsible for helping Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" win Best Picture in 1977 and for bringing James Woods a nomination for his performance in Oliver Stone's 1986 "Salvador."

The documentary shows some outstanding clips from more than 50 films. It also spends time with many actors, directors and critics who were helped directly or influenced by the channel, including actors Jacqueline Bisset, Woods and Theresa Russell; film critic F.X. Feeney; and directors Robert Altman, Jim Jarmusch, Alexander Payne, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Verhoeven.

One of the movie's out-there high points is Tarantino's gimlet-eyed rave about the onscreen sexuality of Laura Antonelli, whose body and work were often found in films on the Z Channel.

The Z Channel meant a lot personally to "Z Channel" director Cassavetes, who grew up in Los Angeles and watched it all the time. (Cassavetes, also a musician, happens to be the 39-year-old daughter of film indie pioneer John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowlands.) When she learned there was a genius behind Z and that he killed himself, she found out more about him and then decided to make the documentary.

"I think there's never been anything like Z," says Cassavetes, calling from Los Angeles. Harvey had "a very unsnobbish, unpretentious love of films and a desire to share those films with other people. And this was Hollywood movies, auteur films, cult, B-movies, soft-core porno films, westerns, everything."

As for Harvey's mental illness, she didn't try to psychoanalyze him or make a big deal of his macabre exit.

"If you look closely at any individual suffering from mental illness, you can't put any one person and their demons into one diagnosis or category," Cassavetes says. "Because of my personal relationship with Z Channel, I felt more at liberty to have my own take on Z. Jerry was a human being; I never tried to completely understand him. It wasn't a creative choice to break it down. I felt like it was important to let everyone who knew about him say what they had to say."

Harvey's family history, which included the suicide of a sister and emotionally dysfunctional parents, meant "this guy had a lot stacked against him from the beginning, personally as well as in the family," she continues. "But to me, it's a more of a miracle, when you look at every experience he went through, that he was able to rise above that and nurture filmmakers and give that respect to [Z Channel] audiences."

Cassavetes's "Z Channel" has done its tour of festivals and has had some theatrical showings in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. But these showings were made possible through special permission from various film studios; many of the excerpted scenes shown in the movie have not been cleared legally for anything other than presentation on the Independent Film Channel (IFC). It was made for IFC, on which it will air Monday at 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. (It airs again May 14, 15, 21 and 27 at different times. And on May 14 and 15, IFC will also show some Z Channel-sponsored classics, such "Heaven's Gate," Orson Welles's "F for Fake" and Nicolas Roeg's "Bad Timing." Visit http://www.IFCtv.com for more information.)


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