“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.

“Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession” (1980) dir. Nicolas Roeg

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I can’t imagine a worse “date movie” than Nicolas Roeg’s psychotic 1980 masterpiece “Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession.”  OK, maybe “Cruising,” “A Serbian Film,” or “Irreversible” would be worse … WAAAY worse.   But seriously, I don’t want you to underestimate how seriously f–ked up “Bad Timing” is.  Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell probably deliver their best-ever acting performances as a mutually destructive couple from hell.  Russell’s character is the stereotypical slutty “crazy woman,” and Russell does play the part very well.  Garfunkel plays an unctuous, controlling, co-dependent psychiatrist scumbag who, we later learn, may actually be more deranged than Russell.  And, of course, there’s Harvey Keitel (the patron saint of f–ked-up cinema) playing a Viennese detective interrogating Garfunkel’s character about Russell’s suicide attempt, trying to play mind games with someone who is a master of the art.  A complex, well-acted, well-written, and well-directed journey into relationship hell.   It also has a great use of music, from Tom Waits to Billie Holiday to Keith Jarrett to the Who.

Here’s Roeg’s effective use of the Who’s “Who Are You” during a couple of crucial scenes:

It was released with an X-rating in the United States, due to nudity, sex, language, and extremely disturbing subject matter.  The Criterion Collection had the good taste to release it on DVD in the U.S. and you can watch it for free on Netflix streaming.  See it with someone you love.