Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004) Review

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500 channels and nothing on.

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession: 4 out of 10: Well, they got the obsession part right. Jerry Harvey was the programming genius behind the Z channel. An independent LA cable channel that helped revolutionize the way pay cable shows a film.

Jerry Harvey was famous for finding obscure films and auteur directors and showcasing them to the Hollywood elite. He was also a troubled soul with a horrible family history who murdered his wife and then took his own life. The documentary attempts to tell the two tales intertwined.

The latter of the tales seems unfulfilling. Reminisces from former friends and colleagues are quite frank. (Some, 20 years later don’t forgive him) but there is virtually no insight into causation.

Jerry became programming director of the Z Channel in 1980 right at the terminus of the big studio director-driven independent Hollywood film. (His pal Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate was the film that inspired the studio coup d’état.) Thus, his influence on independent film was more of a eulogizer than an influential promoter. (Cimino, Peckinpah, and others in his independent circle couldn’t get work, Z channel marathon or no Z channel marathon. Only James Woods (whose Salvador performance was highlighted during Oscar season) and Paul Verhoeven (who claims he got his RoboCop job after a Z channel marathon of his films) show a career boost from Jerry.

So Jerry plucked tons of virtually unseen studio films from the seventies as well as foreign films and used these movies to help fill the twenty-four hours a day.

The documentary avoids one reason for this (These films were cheap if not outright free to show) and barely acknowledges the other reason (These films had plenty of nudity making them the perfect cable only product).

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession also avoids answering some simple questions such as if it was so popular, why didn’t Z channel expand to San Francisco or New York? Jerry deserves credit for introducing the now ubiquitous director’s cut. (Though a 219-minute Heaven’s Gate cut may not have been the most promising way to start that trend) and his love of the obscure can be felt from Sundance to Netflix.

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession highlights some great obscure films I still haven’t seen but surprising shows no footage from the Z channel itself. Long and talky Z Channel is a great place to find some obscure films. It just isn’t that great a story.

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