It's hard to believe cable television has been around long enough for people to wax nostalgic about channels that were, but TV addicts of a certain age remember when the Game Show Network showed actual game shows, and when American Movie Classics was worthy of its name. And people who lived in the right parts of Los Angeles in the '70s and '80s still rave about The Z Channel, a premium movie service that competed with HBO and Showtime for the eyes of film buffs and industry players. As led by visionary programmer Jerry Harvey, The Z Channel revived underseen movies and cult classics, providing a first-rate cinema education at a time when there were no video stores.
Like the recent Henri Langlois: Phantom Of The Cinematheque, Alexandra Cassavetes' documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession tells two stories at once: the story of a cineaste haven, and the story of the complicated man who made it happen. In addition to a slate of art films and canonical Hollywood pictures, Jerry Harvey sought out director's cuts before the term existed, and ran uncensored, full-length versions of Heaven's Gate, 1900, Das Boot, and Berlin Alexanderplatz (which Henry Jaglom describes in Cassavetes' documentary in terms that could just as easily describe Harvey's tenure at The Z Channel: "a delicious meal that just kept coming"). But Harvey was also depressive and unstable, and in 1988 he shot and killed his wife and himself. That ending is so tragic that one of Cassavetes' interviewees questions the whole concept of her documentary, warning against "creating a hero where perhaps one is inappropriate."
Perhaps to avoid that, Cassavetes jumps between Harvey's sad decline (peppered with an old audio interview, played over creepy L.A. landscape shots) and anecdotes from filmmakers who were better-treated by The Z Channel than by their original production companies and distributors. The Z Channel DVD includes a second disc with more of those anecdotes, and in truth, about a third of this two-hour film could be consigned to that second disc. Cassavetes never settles on a clear structure, and she's so loose with the chronology that her documentary sometimes gets hard to follow. Still, she does reasonably well with a subject overdue for study—not Harvey, but cable TV itself. She charts The Z Channel after it was bought out by a company that renamed it Z-Plus: "Everything you love about The Z Channel, plus the Dodgers and Angels." And she scores whenever she talks to people who shared Harvey's "magnificent obsession," like Quentin Tarantino, who grew up outside of The Z Channel's cablecasting area, but borrowed tapes from his video-store boss, and got irritated when he discovered everything that didn't get taped. Alexander Payne, who has boxes full of movies recorded off The Z Channel, says it best: "You never know when you're living in a golden age."