Schubert. On Film.

Review – Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION

Posted in 2000s, Reviews by schubertonfilm on February 5, 2010

Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (2004)  ****

Directed by: XAN CASSAVETES

Interviewed: F.X. FEENEY, ROBERT ALTMAN, JAMES WOODS, QUENTIN TARANTINO, STUART COOPER, JIM JARMUSCH, ALEXANDER PAYNE

Before I viewed this documentary, I had no clue what Z Channel was. It was on television so long before my time I could never have known. Z Channel was one of the first cable subscription movie channels, predating both HBO and Showtime, but available only in Los Angeles and its surrounding areas. But the fact it was only available in Los Angeles did not hinder Z Channel’s success. It actually boosted its profile, as all of the film industry juggernauts watched Z Channel and scouted for talent. The groundbreaking and original thing about Z Channel was that it was the first of its kind to play uncut versions of its movies, some of which had never been shown in public before. And the other groundbreaking thing was that the majority of the programming was not done by market research or a team of programmers, but the brainchild of one, some might say crazy, film lover by the name of Jerry Harvey.

Harvey was a struggling screenwriter with the right connections. A friend of filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah, he was a well-known movie nut when asked to head up programming for the fledgling Z Channel. He made it his mandate to seek out unknown, underground films that were under appreciated, barely seen and/or mostly ignored. He saved movies from extinction. He was the first to show the box office flop Heaven’s Gate in its full, uncut 4 hour glory and the first to play the studio-chopped version of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America on a double bill alongside it’s newly found 4 hour director’s cut. In this documentary, James Woods states that Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Salvador would never have received the Oscar nominations it did if not for Z Channel stirring up attention. Robert Altman gives Harvey full credit for rescuing lost gems like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Images. It’s easy to forget that in the early 80’s, VHS rental stores were uncommon and the only way of seeing movies like these uncut were cable channels like Z.


The film is packed with great interviews with directors like Quentin Tarantino, Alexander Payne and Jim Jarmusch, all discussing the huge effect Z Channel had on them in their formative years. Their anecdotes about taping movies off Z and watching them religiously bring me back to my Superchannel days of watching tape after tape of old movies. What lay beyond Harvey’s movie genius was the mind of a true madman, and this is the element of the movie which raises its rating from three and a half stars to four. It gives the movie an emotional pull that captivates you. Both of Harvey’s sisters committed suicide; his life was a story of pain. And, in the end, his life ended the same way as his sisters, except he managed to not just commit suicide, but also murder.

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession is a film lover’s dream. Clip after clip of obscure movie is shown, with great directors and critics discussing how Z Channel was the only outlet which dared to show movies “the other side” of the population enjoyed watching and wound up introducing foreign and cult films to a whole new legion of filmgoers who never knew they existed. It’s interesting to think, that without Z Channel, would this generation’s great group of filmmakers like Tarantino, Payne and Jarmusch, even have grown up to make movies? And, after watching this documentary, it saddens me to think there is no Z Channel or Jerry Harvey around to influence and inspire me or my generation’s group of filmmakers today.

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3 Responses

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  1. Jack said, on February 6, 2010 at 12:43 am

    Z Channel. I am one of the truely fortunate souls to have had my mind BLOWN AWAY! by the Z Channel. It was like a lavious buffet in a sea of McDonalds.
    Thanks for the heads up on the documentary and keep up the good work!
    Pip Pip, Cheerio and all that Rot!

  2. schubertonfilm said, on February 6, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    I’m envious of you Jack! From watching this doc it really seems like the best movie channel ever.

  3. doctor documentary said, on March 21, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    Wow – Z Channel sounds amazing, and thanks for the tip on the doc, I will seek it out.


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