“Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession” (2004) dir. Alexandra Cassevetes

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Z Channel was a Los Angeles-based cable-TV movie channel that was active during the 1970s and 1980s. What made Z Channel different from HBO, Showtime, and other popular movie channels at the time was their eclectic programming and willingness to show films no one else was showing on television, cable or otherwise. The programmer, a man by the name of Jerry Harvey, was a hardcore cinephile and was diligent about tracking down the most obscure cinematic gems.  His intelligence, intensity, and diligence impressed (and sometimes annoyed) a lot of filmmakers, studio executives, and other creative types in Hollywood.

Z Channel was incredibly popular with the creative community in Hollywood.  Harvey was so well-respected, he was able to get the rights to show Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” during the 1977 Oscar season (while it was still in many theaters) which arguably led to its multiple Oscar nominations and wins.  He also championed Oliver Stone’s “Salvador,” which also led to its critical resurgence and subsequent Oscar nominations in 1986.  However, Harvey’s most important legacy was the promotion of the so-called “director’s cut” and “letterboxing,” which preserved the widescreen composition of films for viewing on non-widescreen TVs.  In 1983, he showed the original director’s cut version of Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” a film many considered a notorious flop, but a film that Harvey felt was a great film undermined by studio tinkering and the director’s own insecurity after the original director’s cut was severely criticized.  This led to premiering Bernardo Bertolucci’s 5 1/2 hour European (and in America, X-rated) director’s cut of his classic “1900,” as well as the European cut of Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece “The Leopard.”

Despite the professional respect he won by many in the creative community, Harvey was a very, very troubled man.  He eventually shot and killed his second wife, before committing suicide in 1988.

“Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession” is a great documentary not only about Z Channel and the early days of cable TV, but of Harvey himself.  It was directed by John Cassevetes’ daughter Alexandra Cassevetes and contains interviews with Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman, Paul Verhoeven, Vilmos Zsigmond, Henry Jaglom, Jacqueline Bisset, Alexander Payne, Jim Jarmusch, Theresa Russell, James Woods, Penelope Spheeris and many, many other directors, screenwriters, and actors who testify about the importance and influence of Z Channel.

While a lot of it is sad, the documentary is an orgy for film buffs, with lots of great clips and interviews.  This is one of my desert island films.

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“Holiday in Cambodia” – Dead Kennedys (from “New Wave Theatre”)

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Cable TV has gotten better and worse since its mass infiltration during the 1980s. On the one hand, it’s now a cliche to point out that the five best shows on cable are far more innovative, artistic, and edgy than the five best motion pictures of any year. On the other hand, things have gotten so homogenized that it’s hard to find a cable channel with any identity anymore. You know you’ve reached a tipping point when CMT (Country Music Television) is showing “Caddyshack.”

However, back in the early 1980s, I would argue that cable was ballsier because they were really trying to be an alternative to regular TV and movies. A lot of it was cheesy, but there was an adventurous “let’s throw it against the wall” mentality that was quite exciting.

Which leads me to “Night Flight,” the USA Cable Network’s terrific late-night Friday and Saturday three-hour block of rock video, cult films, and other esoterica that you couldn’t find anywhere else on television (or video, for that matter). “Night Flight” featured a lot of music you couldn’t find on MTV back in the mid-1980s, including rap, punk, industrial music, and pretty much everything that was classified as “college rock.” It was the first place that I was exposed to Run DMC, R.E.M., Cabaret Voltaire, Depeche Mode, Roxanne Shante, and Laurie Anderson. I also had a chance to see great films such as “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains,” “Rude Boy,” and “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” that were hard to find on video and couldn’t be seen anywhere else on cable.

Which now leads to “New Wave Theatre,” which was nationally available on “Night Flight.” “New Wave Theatre” was literally the only public outlet for hardcore punk music on national television at the time. I got into punk with my friends around the age of 13, but the only way you could experience it in those days was to trade tapes with friends. Unless you lived in a big city, the bands never came to your town and even if they did, you had to be 18 to get in. The albums were hard to find and if even if you could find them, they were beyond the budget of the average 13-year old. I remember seeing this very clip around 1984 or so and I felt like levitating. These days, moshing and slam dancing are about as corny and quaint as square dancing and the Charleston. However, this DK’s clip was the most exciting musical performance I’d ever seen. I remember being so wired afterwards that I couldn’t sleep. As a result, I watched “Night Flight” every week to see if they would repeat “New Wave Theatre,” only to discover later that the episode I saw was a rare repeat, since the host (Peter Ivers) was murdered around the same time. It wasn’t a complete loss by any means because I got to experience so many other cool things through “Night Flight.” But I also remember being terribly let down when it didn’t pop up until years later.

There are clips of “New Wave Theatre” scattered throughout “YouTube” if you’re feeling inclined. There’s also a terrific biography about Ivers that came out in 2008 called “In Heaven, Everything Is Fine” which I highly recommend as well.