Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Z Channeling Jerry Harvey


The Z channel has been mentioned here before. In a long ago post on the Oscars in the seventies it was mentioned how the Z Channel in Los Angeles was responsible for Carol Kane's nomination for Hester Street and James Whitmore's for Give 'em Hell, Harry! because both of those movies had been run around the clock as the Academy members were sending in their submissions. It was a cable channel, one of the first pay cable channels in the country, that ran features not likely to be seen anywhere else. Its program director was Jerry Harvey and he was responsible for making it the most successful channel in Los Angeles even after years of competition from HBO and Showtime. He was the friend and champion of filmmakers from Sam Peckinpah and Michael Cimino to Henry Jaglom and Robert Altman. He pioneered the idea of the Director's Cut and proved that one can build an audience based on consistency of quality. Sadly, he was also clinically depressed with a family history of psychosis. Both of his sisters committed suicide and Jerry told friends that he feared one day he would lose the battle as well. He did. On April 9, 1988, Harvey shot and killed his wife, Deri Rudolph, and then turned the gun on himself.

The 2004 documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession details the rise and fall of both Harvey and the Z Channel and does so in a way not only satisfying but fulfilling as well. Director Alexandra Cassavetes takes the two together, Harvey and the Channel as if they were one separated by a split in the psyche. By profiling Jerry's madness on the one hand and the grand achievements of the Z Channel on the other we can mourn when the end arrives, even after the wreckage of a homicide/suicide. Cassavetes knows, and her legion interview subjects as well, that people don't have much sympathy for mental illness when it claims the life of a bystander, and so it is the channel's demise that is given the position of greatest mourning, paralleled by what happened to Harvey and his wife.

When Jerry Harvey took over as programming director of the Z Channel he immediately began wheeling and dealing with the artists of Hollywood, not the executives. He pursued people like Sam Peckinpah, who eventually became one of his closest friends, and changed the landscape of how films were shown after their initial run. Harvey told Peckinpah he would run his films the way the director wanted and when Peckinpah, and later Robert Altman, stuttered that the studios owned the prints Harvey replied, "Who cares?" Harvey knew the studios would never interfere once the initial run was over and he was right. The night Harvey and Peckinpah ran Peckinpah's version of The Wild Bunch at the Beverly Canon Theater in 1974, the Director's Cut was born. Later, on the Z Channel, Harvey would premiere many more, from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Once Upon a Time in America to 1900 and Heaven's Gate. And many of the Director's Cuts run on the Z Channel are still unavailable to this day. In the film Quentin Tarantino delights in the fact that he has boxes of old VHS tapes of Director's Cuts of films shown on the Z Channel that no one who didn't watch them there has ever seen.

It is through the interviews with practically every member of the seventies Hollywood "A" List that we get to know Harvey and the Channel and understand just how much it accomplished at a time long before DVDs, streaming movies online and bonus features aplenty. Harvey ran films letterboxed before anyone even knew what that meant. And he would choose a director few if any people had heard of and highlight them for the entire month, from Henry Jaglom and Stuart Cooper to a little known filmmaker named Paul Verhoeven. When a film was premiering on the Z Channel he would host interviews with the relevant players and hold forums leading up to the feature night. In short, as stated in the film by many of the interviewed, he made a cable channel into a viable alternative for people who couldn't get to film festivals.

As one may suspect, it couldn't last. The company that was going to prop up the channel in the mid-eighties got hit hard by the stock market crash and the Z Channel was sold to a company interested in combining sports telecasts into the mix. The previously commercial free channel would now run ads and mix sporting events with movies. That may not sound like much when read here but when watching the film, seeing all the achievements of the channel, seeing Robert Altman, Charles Champlin, F.X. Feeney, Henry Jaglom, Theresa Russell, Alexander Payne, Jim Jarmusch and others lavish praise upon it for its championing of the artist, it is sad indeed when the camera sits before a programmer of Z who recounts the story of Ingmar Bergman's The Silence being shown on the channel after the change in ownership. Before the movie ended the picture squeezed up and a yellow chyron ran below detailing the Dodger's game time as an announcer shouted, "Don't miss the Dodger's game, NEXT!" It was over. The Z Channel died and was replaced by SportsChannel Los Angeles in 1989. Within a twelve month period, both the channel and its pioneering programmer were gone.

The film gives the last word to F.X. Feeney, film critic for the Z Channel magazine and close friend of Harvey who believes that the wreckage of Harvey's life shouldn't negate the legacy of what he created. Harvey wanted people to know films were art and in a rare moment of means and desire coming together with just the right person in control, he was able to do this. The film closes with a montage of clips from most of the films celebrated on the Z Channel to the melody of What'll I Do, one of Harvey's favortie songs, as performed by William Atherton for The Great Gatsby. It's a fitting and moving finale. As you watch the clips and feel the faint shudder of something great now lost you realize you are mourning a cable channel. And that's when you realize that anything can exalt great art or even be great art itself, if only someone cares enough to make it so.

24 comments:

larry aydlette said...

I liked that doc, too. sad, though.

Greg said...

Yeah, quite sad. Watching it I thought Harvey and Feeney would've been obsessive bloggers had they been born twenty years later.

Moviezzz said...

This was a great documentary.

It makes you wonder, why with the 800 channel cable universe of today, there is nothing like it (other than TCM).

bill r. said...

Great article, Greg. I love this film. It's fascinating and heartbreaking, and immensely entertaining. I'd never heard of Z Channel before seeing the documentary, and I was left mourning the loss of something I was never a part of.

The reaction of the guy telling the story of the Dodgers announcement at the end of The Silence is one of my favorite moments. He doesn't say it, but he has this "What can you do?" kind of looks on his face. That says it all.

And the ending, with "What'll I Do" playing over the clip montage...perfect.

It's odd listening to Xan Cassavetes' commentary track, because she talks like your stereotypical film geek, in the bad sense, because when talking about a specific film, she rarely says anything beyond "That film rocks!" But she did a great job with this movie. She's sort of like Tarantino, I think, because unless he's being interviewed by a smart, knowledgeable person, Tarantino is really hard to listen to, and yet he had the patience to make something like Jackie Brown. It doesn't compute, but there it is. I think Xan Cassavetes is similar. She can't talk about things, but she can put together a movie. This movie, anyway.

Greg said...

Moviezzz, I was thinking the same thing. I think TCM is the Godchild of the Z Channel in many ways from it's special features, star of the month, guest programmers and so on, it has the same feel.

Greg said...

Bill, it's funny but I never saw this until this year. I'm not sure how I missed it in 2004. Anyway, the programmer speaking about The Silence does exactly that: Just stares with a smile on his face like, "Unbelievable, right?"

And it is so strange that you mourn the loss of this channel even if, like you and I, you were never a part of it.

I didn't listen to the commentary track but I'll have to now. Tarantino by the way was probably the only person that did kind of bug me in this. The way he talks just irritates me so I know exactly what you mean.

bill r. said...

To be fair to Cassavetes, I don't remember her as being quite as bad as Tarantino. Most people aren't. I love his films, but God is he obnoxious to listen to. Unless, as I said, he has a good interviewer. I saw him on that TCM show that Elvis Mitchell hosts, and he came off very well, and VERY smart about movies.

In Z Channel, I think Tarantino is okay. He's being himself, and he's enthusiastic, but his enthusiasm is hard to watch. It's almost embarrassing sometimes.

Anyway. In the film, doesn't he say that Chabrol's This Man Must Die is unavailable? I think he does, and he's wrong, because the copy I saw via Netflix looked like it had been around awhile.

Greg said...

Oh I don't remember, sorry. But I do have another review coming up as a direct result of watching this doc, maybe tomorrow. I'd scan through the scenes of QT to see what movie he mentioned but I don't feel like seeing him again right now.

Time for a cheeseburger and some mac n cheese, the unemployed lunch of the gods!

bill r. said...

Will you be reviewing Overlord, by any chance?

Moviezzz said...

Cinemax in the mid 90's also came close to Z Channel.

They would have the Saturday morning "Not on Home Video" special movie, showing things like some of Bogdanovich's unavailable (at the time) films.

And on Wednesday night they would have the "Cinemax Vanguard", showing a lot of art house films. I first discovered Hal Hartley's THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH there.

But, they've moved away from that.

Greg said...

Bill, not tomorrow but soon I hope. Have you seen it?

By the way, if I stopped doing all the different banners every other day and just settled on one permanent banner I think my Overlord banner would be it.

Greg said...

Moviezzz, I remember hearing that about Cinemax but I never got it until recently when it had already become just like the other movie channels.

bill r. said...

It's a damn nice banner. And yes, I have seen Overlord. I'd never heard about it before the documentary, and was thrilled when Criterion released it so I could finally see the whole thing (I think it was one of the first movies I saw with my Netflix account).

It's a fascinating film. I'd stop short of calling it "great", at least until I've had a chance to see it again, but I did like it very much.

Greg said...

I can't wait to see it now. I'll watch it this week and write it up.

Christopher said...

Isn't this the one where Tarantino rants on about his vast vhs collection?..I've seen this Doc and liked it...There seems to be an "age of enlightenment"for film every couple of decades..the Art house revival in the 60s,the Z-Channel and the dawn of Cable in the late 70s -early 80s and now the TCM channel..for me it was in the early 70s ,particularly around '72 when PBS began digging up and constantly running classic silent films and foriegn films and seeing stuff like Chaney's He Who Gets Slapped,Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast,Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible and many more..

Greg said...

Christopher, PBS is where I saw every movie you listed. I also saw Eisenstein's Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky for the first time on PBS. I used to get at least one classic I had never seen a week on PBS.

Christopher said...

yep..I saw those too..It was a pretty big deal back then.There was always great classics playing on regular TV,morning ,noon and night but I'd never seen most of the silent films and the Foriegn films,I'd only read about in books!First one I saw was Nosferatu.I'd just ordered an abridged version of it on Super 8 film from Blackhawk films,while I was waiting on it to arrive,PBS showed the complete version!Soon after ,there was an avalanche of ,"then" forgotten classics one after another..

Fox said...

Who needs something like Z Channel anymore anyways when we have Instant Viewing on our Netflix!??

Just kidding...

People keep telling me to see this documentary, and I need to.

On a channel that is definitely not Z (it's more like CW), I've been oddly getting sucked into their Saturday and Sunday double features. You get odd pairings like Mr. Mom and The Usual Suspects or My Giant and the Rob Schneider/Van Damme movie Knock Off. I laugh, but I watched all of My Giant the other day. It's probably not as good as Alexander Nevsky.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I still remember a time when Bravo was a decent premium channel that showed foreign movies, uncut and in their correct aspect ratio. Scariest movie on CineMax was an otherwise unavailable musical with a big number about Broadway and the "Gay White Way". No, I'm not making that up.

Greg said...

On a channel that is definitely not Z (it's more like CW), I've been oddly getting sucked into their Saturday and Sunday double features.

Fox, what channel are you referring to?

Greg said...

Peter, what musical was it?

Peter Nellhaus said...

I don't remember the name of the musical except that it was a technicolor film from the Forties, possibly from 20th Century Fox. Even calling Broadway "the Great White Way" seems very dated, even more so since Broadway has seen plays by Lorraine Hansbury and Lanford Wilson.

Greg said...

I'll search on the number to find it, I hope. And Peter, "The Great White Way" isn't a racial nickname, it was coined in 1902 to describe the massive illumination from all the marquee and street lights lining it.

Greg said...

I just looked it up. It's My Gal Sal with Rita Hayworth from 1942.