A documentary on the Z Channel, one of the first pay cable stations in the US, and its programming chief, Jerry Harvey. Debuting in 1974, the LA-based channel's eclectic slate of movies ...
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Richard E. Grant,
A documentary on the Z Channel, one of the first pay cable stations in the US, and its programming chief, Jerry Harvey. Debuting in 1974, the LA-based channel's eclectic slate of movies became a prime example of the untapped power of cable television. Written by
One of Cable TV's Finest Achievement was One of its First!
This fascinating documentary portrays the work and life of early cable-TV programming genius, Gerry Harvey, whose Z Channel had attracted a substantial 'cult' following in metro LA at the dawn of the cable TV era into the late '80s. It is also a re-view/revue of many of the finest films of Z Channel's generation and earlier. The finest, often augmented by the weirdest too (e.g., Russ Meyer festivals and the 'soft porn' of those earlier times).
The biographical portions of the documentary -- Harvey's rise from ultra geek to film aficionado, then exhibitor/promoter, all amidst emotional chaos -- are all very interesting, and also tragic. Even more interesting is the history of how The Z Channel was launched, built, ... and eventually lost.
This documentary presents fascinating stories about movies and filmmakers. Michael Cimino's story is a good example. A good friend of Harvey's, Cimino had earned financial support and a free hand by making the incomparable Best Picture, "The Deer Hunter", and then destroyed his credibility & career by his excesses in filming the underrated Heaven's Gate. Through that time, his life was intertwined with Harvey's, presenting unique perspective on the unfolding events.
Harvey not only knew films, and had exceptional taste; he also had the courage and ingenuity to discover and present films (often 'director's cuts) in relentlessly creative, compelling programming. Excellent and important films that have otherwise been overlooked -- like Bertolucci's '1900' and Cimino's Heaven's Gate -- were shown with success by Harvey. One weekend there might be a Truffaut festival, the next perhaps Spaghetti Westerns or the Marx Brothers. Seemingly no genre was ignored; Harvey trusted his audience to watch with open minds and receptive hearts, to respond to great and quirky films, ...and to spread the word and keep the fledgling channel alive and growing. After his death (portrayed compellingly in interviews within the documentary), the station went into decline -- including the desperate step of incongruently showing sporting events (!) in alongside the great film programming. After all, wasn't that part of HBO's success?! Yikes. So sad.
Yet, the greatest joy of this documentary is neither the biography nor the story of Z -- it is the extraordinary range of film clips from the huge range of programming that the Z Channel broadcast.
The visual quality of the documentary is variable, from great to low-grade. But for me, at least, this technical 'weakness' could not undercut a fascinating tour of movies and a devotee who made his taste count. (Indeed, sometimes the "degraded" video imagery was itself a point of interest and beauty.) With apologies to the pretty good Independent Film Channel and the sometimes delightful Turner Classic Movies, the Z Channel appears far better than any station I have seen. I was oblivious to it at the time, so this film was a revelation to me.
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