“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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“Salvador” (1986) dir. Oliver Stone

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Made in the same year as Oliver Stone’s breakthrough “Platoon,” “Salvador” is arguably Stone’s best film. The late, great critic Pauline Kael described the directorial style of this film as someone putting a gun to the back of Stone’s neck and shouting “GO!!” That’s pretty much the long and short of it. The most exciting political thriller since Costa-Gavras’s “Z,” “Salvador” is like a Hunter S. Thompson story in hell.

James Woods gives his all-time best performance as sleazebag photographer Richard Boyle.  Apologies to Paul Newman, but he should have gotten the Best Actor Oscar for “Hud,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Verdict,” or “Nobody’s Fool.”  Sorry, Woods deserved the Oscar in 1987.  If there was any role Woods was born to play, it’s Boyle.  And the supporting performances, from James Belushi to Elpidia Carillo to Micheal Murphy to John Savage to Tony Plana are all magnificent.

This is political cinema as an action film.  You can really see Kathryn Bigelow taking notes (Stone produced her 1989 thriller “Blue Steel”) for her later work on “Strange Days” and “The Hurt Locker.”