“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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“Robocop” (1987) dir. Paul Verhoeven

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When I first saw the preview for “Robocop” in the summer of 1987, I rolled my eyes and thought it looked like a really stupid “Terminator” ripoff. Except for one thing. I noticed that the director listed on the final title card was Paul Verhoeven. I hadn’t seen any of Paul Verhoeven’s critically acclaimed and controversial films from Holland at that point, but I did know the name and I became mildly intrigued.

Cut to a couple of months later. The film comes out, has a great opening weekend, and lots of my peers tell me it’s really really good. So, I check out “Robocop” with good, albeit modest expectations. The movie opens with some funny satirical ads from the future. I’m thinking, “OK, this is kind of funny,” and then we go to a corporate boardroom. The corporate talking heads are introducing a new robot that will help bring order to a crime-ridden Detroit. Except that there’s a technical glitch, which results in one of the most shockingly, graphically violent scenes I’ve ever seen in a film.  Please note this is not safe for work or little ones and is the X-rated version of this scene that needed to be toned down for an American R-rating.

After the mayhem unravels, the scene ends with the CEO shaking his head at the VP who led this project, and saying “Dick, I’m very disappointed in you.” At that moment, Verhoeven’s mix of sardonic humor and sickening violence had me hooked.

The shocks and laughs continued. And not only did the nihilistic satire impress me, but the very visceral way the film was shot and edited knocked my socks off. It reminded me a lot of the first “Mad Max” film and did not look like anything else being produced by a Hollywood studio at the time. People criticize and praise Tarantino for mixing disturbing violence and humor, but Verhoeven was doing it in spades with the first “Robocop” in 1987.  This scene featuring the corporate scumbag played by Miguel Ferrer, being eliminated by a sleazy hitman played by Kurtwood Smith (who is hired by another corporate scumbag played by Ronny Cox) is a prime example of this.   I love the way the models/prostitutes casually run away from the sex/cocaine party like they’re missing an important TV show.  This clip is also not safe for work.

While the nihilistic satirical attitude impressed me, Verhoeven still has the courage to invest his story with real pathos. The scene where Murphy/Robocop starts having flashbacks to his life as a human and goes home to find his wife and child gone and an empty house is heartbreaking.

“Robocop” still holds up more than 25 years later and it’s truly amazing (as outrageous as the film seemed at the time) how much it got right about our present day American life. Corporations don’t run police forces (at least not yet), but they do run a lot of American prisons. The return and popularity of gas guzzling automobiles reached its peak in our country in 1997 (which is when the first “Robocop” takes place).

While “Robocop” could be called an American classic, I feel funny saying that since the film has Verhoeven’s very European attitude guiding the film throughout.

“Mad Max” (1979) dir. George Miller

Back in the spring of 1980, my older brother and I saw this trailer (or some variation of it) while waiting for another movie.  My brother looked at me, serious as a heart attack, and said “We have to see this movie.”  Since my Dad (who was divorced from my Mom) was coming for his monthly visit the following weekend, we were going to do everything in our power to have him take us to see this R-rated film.   To my Dad’s credit, he wanted to take us to see “The Black Stallion,” which, as far as G-rated films go, is pretty superlative.  But my brother was beyond the age where G-rated films were remotely cool, and me, by extension as a spineless younger brother, agreed 100%.  So after much cajoling, my Dad bought the tickets and we settled in for something that completely blew me away (and needless to say, was completely inappropriate for a 10-year old).   Not only was “Mad Max” full of action, but a lot of people died … in very painfully graphic ways.  I was seriously disturbed, but also completely thrilled.  Of course, my brother and I completely ruined any future chance of seeing a transgressive movie like this by excitedly telling our Mom in graphic detail what we just saw.  My Mom berated my Dad, who sheepishly shrugged his shoulders and tried to say, “I had no idea what kind of movie this was.”  Wherever you are Dad (he’s since deceased), sorry for putting you in that position … but also thank you for taking my brother and me to such an awesome flick.

I tried explaining for months to my friends how great this film was, but since the original theatrical run of “Mad Max” was completely under the radar in the United States (one of the only territories in the world where this film wasn’t a success), most just brushed me off.  It wasn’t until the 1982 sequel “The Road Warrior” made major waves that my friends got interested in seeing “Mad Max.”  As terrific as “The Road Warrior” is, the original “Mad Max” is still the best.  There’s just something so freakin’ cool with how down and dirty this flick is.  The only film that has remotely approached its original feel in my opinion is Paul Verhoeven’s “Robocop.”