Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

I’ve got a confession to make: I love documentaries about film. Filmmakers, film culture, film art, and film people are subjects dear to my film soaked heart. So when I heard this film talked about on one of the podcasts that I listen to religiously, I had to check it out. I was happy I did.

I am the child of the nineties. For me there was always VHS, DVD, Cable and big box rental places where you can rent two classics for one dollar and keep them for five nights.  It is hard for me to imagine living in the fire pit of America and not having these things in order to survive. So when the obligatory talking heads started talking about their being only one channel in Los Angeles that showed movies all of the time, I couldn’t believe it. (OK  so I could, but it was still a foreign notion for me) So when these people who I recognize from films that they have done (Alexander Payne, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Veerhoven) just rave about something that had literally never been seen before, I began to want to have the experiences that they had. Taping the complete 1900 on two different tapes, writing to the magazine and complaining about the aspect ratio, encountering rarities years and years after they had been lost in the ether, all sounded like some cinephile’s wet dream.  Some cinephile’s wet dream that I never had.

Not only is this film about the film culture and the constant need for new material and rare material, but it is a film about a obssessive man who made this channel one of the most revered channels of all time. This man, Jerry Harvey, started out programming local theaters and transitioned to cable as they came calling. By some miracle, he got creative control over this paid channel and was working out marvelously, at least for a couple of years. He was insane about film. He wanted to see every good film out there and his passion is palpable in the many ways he put together the programming. He didn’t just want to show important “art” films, but wanted to show lost films, unfairly treated films, mainstream films, foreign films, exploitation films, and every other type of film out there. Just as long as had some artistic merit, he wanted to program it. He also decided to put together a magazine that highlighted the films showing during that month and give some criticism of them. This combination had never really been successful in the way it was for Z Channel. But of course every story of triumph has an ending that is just as sad. Mr. Harvey was a deeply disturbed man who experienced his two sisters committing suicide and had manic depression. As the cable channel was being swallowed whole by HBO and Showtime’s tactics of bullying, he shot his wife and then himself for seemingly no reason.

What I liked about this film is that it didn’t shy away from this awful truth about this man who helped so many filmmakers have their films shown and inspire so many others. At the beginning you are hit with a news report the day after it happened. Each person who knew him intimately talked about how depressed he was and how much his job defined him. He loved film and he loved programming this channel. At one point one of the people who knew him said how much he hated Mr. Harvey after he committed this unspeakable tragedy. He was angry that a man he knew so well would ever think  that was a good thing to do. It is sad and compelling at the same time.

At the heart of this film, it is about film. The filmmakers show clips of several different films that inspired Mr. Harvey and the community of filmmakers that united around him. It is tragic that he had to go out the way he did, but he left behind a memory and a legacy that continues to live on in many people’s minds. I wonder what would have happened if he had lived…


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