Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession Review

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession is directed by Xan Cassavetes, daughter of directorial legend John Cassavetes, and is a film about films, an obsession with cinema and the desire to not just watch films, but to spread the word about great films and even participate in the making of them.

Z Channel was a cable film channel which ran throughout the 70s and 80s and was the first US cable channel to show films 24 hours a day, and unlike the majority of film channels today, the motivation appeared not to be profit but a genuine love of cinema. Central to this was Jerry Harvey, the head programmer of Z Channel for many years. Prior to this he had been the programmer at The Beverly Canon Theatre in LA where he had been involved in screenings such as a showing of the extended cut of The Wild Bunch, hand delivered by Sam Peckinpah himself. As the head of Z Channel Jerry programmed the channel with huge enthusiasm and an esoteric taste, showing American films and World Cinema and often focusing on particular directors or actors/actresses. On Z Channel you could see a Sam Fuller Film festival next to a six hour cut of Bertolucci’s 1900, cinematic bliss. One of the significant legacies of Z Channel is also the alternative, director cuts that it championed; in particular1900, The Wild Bunch, Once Upon a Time in America and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate.

Heaven’s Gate is a particularly interesting case; famed for destroying a studio, its escalating costs, being a commercial flop and creating a backlash against American directors being given the freedom to spend large sums of money pursuing personal visions. Jerry Harvey was lucky enough to see a longer cut of Heaven’s Gate, a cut that Cimino had intended to be seen more widely, and was struck by its brilliance and how unfairly it had been treated by the press in its shorter form. He managed to persuade Cimino to let him show the longer version on Z Channel, leading to a re-assessment of the film, helping change the critical opinion surrounding it. Jerry formed a personal bond with Cimino and it is a shame that Cimino, one of the people involved in the story of Z Channel, was unable to appear in the documentary.

Those that were available are a fantastic collection of friends and colleagues of Jerry’s and also those who Z Channel influenced who have gone on to have careers in cinema; in particular Jim Jarmusch, Alexander Payne and Quentin Tarantino – Tarantino wasn’t actually able to receive Z Channel but watched the videos that his friend had taped off the channel and remembers getting angry about those films that his friend hadn’t taped that he saw advertised.

One striking element of Z Channel is the influence it must have had on a generation of future film-makers and writers. Would Jim Jarmusch’s films be the same without the influence of Jerry Harvey’s individual programming choices. It is this programming that is so exciting and also sad about Z Channel. Here was a channel for film fans, like myself, made by a film fan where almost anyone could go and have their eyes opened to a film they had not seen before or get to see a film in an entirely new way. It is so exciting as this is the embodiment of what I love about having a passion for cinema and the desire to spread this passion, but it is so sad because Z Channel is gone, exciting and individual programming is all but gone and tragically Jerry Harvey is also gone.

Another large part of the documentary tells a very different story to the one of love and passion for cinema. Jerry found film, like many, as an escape and in his case it appeared to have been an escape from his abusive upbringing and his dark psychological turmoil.

In 1988 Jerry shot his wife before turning the gun on himself.

It is this tragedy that adds a sombre undercurrent to the film. Cassavetes does not shy away from this event and it is clear that some of Jerry’s friends are struggling to forgive him for what occurred that night. Cassavetes merges the two threads in the film and creates a touching and dark personal portrait but also a celebration of Z Channel.

It is clear that without Jerry Z Channel would not be the same and it slowly collapsed. Z Channel is no more and I believe that without this kind of individuality, the homogeneous unimaginative programming of most television is helping bring about its own decline. As the so-called New Media affords its audience the opportunity to create their own schedule and not be tied to their location, their budget or the pedestrian tastes and attitudes of television programmers, television loses its grip on programming and becomes more and more reactive. Luckily there are still some though who want to see television broadcast material of worth, including IFC who helped back this film.

Z Channel is a well made documentary that tells an important story about the love of film and it is a shame that Jerry Harvey is not alive to see the diversity of cinema and the instant availability that a lot of people have to it.