A documentary on the Z Channel, one of the first pay cable stations in the US, and its programming chief, Jerry Harvey. Debuting in 1974, the LA-based channel's eclectic slate of movies ...
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A documentary on the Z Channel, one of the first pay cable stations in the US, and its programming chief, Jerry Harvey. Debuting in 1974, the LA-based channel's eclectic slate of movies became a prime example of the untapped power of cable television. Written by
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Bittersweet paean to "The Greatest Channel on Earth"
I always tell people that I went to Film School TWICE - First, at Boston University. The second time watching Z CHANNEL after moving to L.A.. Or, I'd simply say, "Z CHANNEL is the Greatest Channel on Earth!"
It's that kind of worship that obviously inspired Directer Xan Cassavetes to make "Z CHANNEL - A Magnificent Obsession". And, through the dozens of interviews included in the film, you can see how a relatively small local cable outlet (it never even reached 100,000 subscribers) could still burn in the memory 15 years after its untimely and much lamented demise. But, the film is also bittersweet, because the main creative force behind the channel during it's 80's heydey, Jerry Harvey, was a hugely tormented man whose own murder-suicide closely paralleled the channel's rapid demise.
As a documentary, Z CHANNEL, is somewhat lacking. I find it daunting to imagine very many viewers who didn't subscribe to the channel to either enjoy the movie, or even figure out exactly why it was made. Even a hardcore partisan like myself found it somewhat lacking in context or in giving a clear, lucid description of exactly WHAT Z CHANNEL was or what they showed. Yes, there are some wonderful interviews with Robert Altman, Vilmos Zsigmond and Quentin Tarantino (who, ironically, lived OUTSIDE its subscription area and could only experience it vicariously through a friend's VHS dubs!) as well as some scattershot clips from various movies that were carried on the station. But, why, for instance, do we never get a sample listing of all the films that played during a particular week or a particular month? And, why do we NEVER see actual FOOTAGE from the channel? (The movie clips are Presented as FILM which is certainly aesthetically pleasing when viewed in a theater but not representative of how they were watched on early 80's TV's). Were there rights issues? Certainly, testimony from Tarantino, Alexander Payne and others proves that people have tapes where excerpts could have been culled from. I still have dozens of recordings if they need it for the DVD! Not even a still frame of the station logo? Odd.
What can't be denied is the passion for movies that breathes in every word that is spoken by the interviewees. Careers were made (James Woods, Theresa Russell) or re-discovered for a new generation (Richard Brooks, Sam Peckinpah) simply because of the fact that an inordinately large percentage of the Hollywood community was hooked up to Z CHANNEL (it even aired movies for Academy Awards Consideration long before screener tapes). Some of the same forces that began to coalesce to crush Z CHANNEL (HBO, Cable & Satellite growth, STUDIO mergers with multi-national corporations) are even more in effect now, so it's impossible to imagine such a network existing again.
Long live Z CHANNEL - at least in the memories of those who knew it.
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