Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

(director/writer: Xan Cassavetes; cinematographer: John Pirozzi; editor: Iain Kennedy; music: Steven Hufsteter; cast: Jerry Harvey, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Altman, Alexander Payne, FX Feeney, James Woods, Quentin Tarantino, Henry Jaglom, Kevin Thomas; Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Rick Ross/Marshall Persinger; IFC; 2004)

“A film buffs delight.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession is a film buffs delight, but it also should interest the casual movie-goer searching for a guide to movies not that familiar but worth seeing. It’s directed with love and affection by Xan Cassavetes–the daughter of noted film director John Cassavetes. Not being from L.A., I never had the opportunity to watch a station that I heard only positive things about back east. This well-crafted documentary puts together a fitting tribute to Bakersfield, California, native Jerry Harvey, replete with talking-heads and marvelous film clips. Jerry was head of programming at Z Channel–an independent groundbreaking Pay TV station founded in 1974 (before there were video stores or HBO). It served the Los Angeles area with movies played without commercials. Jerry, at the time of his appointment, was only 32 years old in 1981, and his tenure there had a positive impact on the station and the way the community was served by TV. The station was one of the first to start pay cable TV, but built its reputation on the quality of the films shown. Jerry, a certifiable manic, was obsessed with films and within the short-time span of six years established the station as a place that showed quality films that earned the station the right to be considered a major force in the film industry. It was the first time one can see a film on TV that you could see in the theaters of only certain cities–if seen at all. Films were shown as diverse as Heaven’s Gate, Images, Fitzcarraldo, The Leopard, Andrei Rublev, The Red Desert, Das Boot, The 400 Blows, The Important Thing Is To Love, The Wild Bunch, Overlord, Le Magnifique, Bad Timing, Salvador, Once Upon A Time In America, 1900 and many others that would have been overlooked and most likely forgotten if it were not for Z Channel. Many of these films bombed in the theater because they were cut up by hack editors hired by the studio, but Jerry was able to get them shown in their uncut version, and this later led to films re-released as director’s cut. It was through such a cross-section of art films and commercial ones, European, Asian and American, that Z station built a loyal and broad audience.

A host of film people are interviewed and speak glowingly of Jerry’s contributions and how inspired he was about film. Film critic for Z Channel FX Feeney remained close friends with Jerry and offers many insights into his personal life and style of operating, there are also interviews with the likes of such film luminaries as James Woods, Jacqueline Bisset, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman and Jim Jarmush, among others, all acknowledging how important Jerry was to the industry and also marveling at his vitality and support for their projects.

Jerry was unfortunately afflicted by inner demons throughout his life, surviving a debilitating childhood where his parents weren’t able to give him the kind of love he needed. His fundamentalist Catholic, alcoholic, father, a judge known in Bakersfield for sending the most men to the electric chair, treated him sadistically, his mom was unable to understand his suffering, and his two sisters, who he was close to, committed suicide as adults. When Z Station was faced with financial woes and law suits, and added sports programming to survive as Z plus, a depressed Jerry at the age of 39, in April of 1988, a week after the station was showing Dodger games, killed his second wife Deri and an hour later took his own life. The renown station died in 1989, only a year after Jerry’s death.

Xan Cassavetes chronicles Jerry’s drive to get recognition for films he believed in, and with compassion and truth puts a human face on a man who made the film world for everyone a better place because he had taste, guts and the ability to get things done. The quote I liked best came from filmmaker Henry Jaglom, a friend of Jerry’s: “Z Channel was like a film festival in your house every single night. And the programming was eccentric and odd and mixed.”