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.