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Z Channel and Jerry Harvey: The Godfather of Director’s Cuts and Letterbox-on-TV

December 4, 2009

Does the fusion of greatness and ambition require a level of insanity? While I cannot offer a statistical analysis, why does it seem that a disproportionate contingent of painters, musicians, writers and filmmakers meet such tragic life endings? Pop-psychology would claim that the brains of these creative types possess artistic sensibilities in the places where we mere mortals maintain mundane thoughts like “pay the bills” or “remember not to shoot your loved ones”.  Due to the information explosion of this here internet, fans have access to a more well-rounded historical account of their favorite creators. Far too often, this results in the discovery of sordid life details that can affect our enjoyment of their work (it was really sad to learn that avant-garde composer Percy Grainger’s use of English rather than Italian musical terms was due to his white supremacist beliefs). Why is this phenomenon such a shock today? We were the subjects of a whitewashing of the Truth, and now, in all apologies to Jack Nicholson, we are unable to handle it?

In April of 1988, all newscasts within the Los Angeles media market interrupted their etudes to baseball’s opening day with the account of a ghastly murder-suicide. Jerry Harvey, the program director behind Z Channel, shot his wife, then turned the gun – a gift from director Sam Peckinpah – on himself. If you subscribe to that popular on-line move-delivery service, I compel you to log onto said service and search for Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession. You’ll want to clear three hours from your schedule – two for the film, and one for all of the times you’ll be pausing to document the names of incredible films that are referenced.  Directed by Xan Cassavettes and produced by Rick Ross (not that Rick Ross), A Magnificent Obsession brings in a cavalcade of notable directors to tell their story about why Z Channel mattered. Not too long after Michael Cimino, director of The Deer Hunter, released Heaven’s Gate to an angry phalanx of tomatoes, he received a call from Harvey. “I want to show your film on my network”, Harvey exclaimed. “Do you have any extra footage that was cut from the theatrical version?”, he added. This example illustrates the impact of Z Channel. Following Cimino’s efforts to return Heaven’s Gate to his original artistic vision, Harvey heavily promoted his network’s programming of this “director’s cut”. Critics that previously lambasted the picture were coming around to sing its praises. Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession is loaded with Hollywood anecdotes that sound almost too apocryphal for reality. After describing Harvey’s showing of The Decline of Modern Civilization, director Penelope Spheeris describes the underwriting of her punk-rock masterpiece as “…financed by two businessmen from the Valley who wanted to finance a porn movie. They had no idea I was going in to pitch a punk rock film.”

Robert Altman gives Harvey credit for providing a “safe place” for films that asked audiences to “discover details for themselves”. There are far too many stories to highlight here: emotional tributes from Alexander Payne, Jim Jarmusch, Stuart Cooper, Jacqueline Bisset, and on and on. The serious expressions of loss are cleverly interspersed with Quenton Tarantino’s comedic fanboy-esque recollections. The appropriately-named F.X. Feeney, a local film critic, sums it up with this line: Harvey and Z Channel  “…acted and inspired others to admire these things of beauty.”

The Day It Ended

Like most residents of Barstow, I remember wondering “Who is Jerry Harvey?”, until the talking-head mentioned Z Channel. For kids in southern California with any interest in film, Z Channel was viewed as a Voltron of the Holy Grail, the Ring, the Lost City of Gold, and that “Archie’s” place in License to Drive. We saw the commercials, we read the ads, and we heard the unbelievable stories from relatives with Los Angeles addresses.  While we had access to HBO and Star Channel (the early version of The Movie Channel), it felt like they had 20 films that were constantly repeated. I must have seen Corvette Summer (starring Mark Hamill) 50 times in what was our family’s Caprice Classic Winter. Z Channel sounded like an Antarctic blast of fresh air, with insane amounts of horror, rock band stories, and foreign films. Alas, it was never to be – when Z Channel was purchased by media conglomerate Group W a few years before Harvey’s tragic moment, rather than expand the service to the High Desert, the top brass decided to slowly transition their auteur-based fare into local sports programming. By 1989, the network’s days of Fellini festivals and Cimino director’s cuts were over. Few things are more frustrating than being denied access to greatness as it occurs. However, it would be much worse if it never happened at all – I did not have the chance to see Z Channel in its heyday, but I can enjoy the fruits of its existence. A week after Thanksgiving, here’s another item to add to the list. Check it out when you get the chance – you’ll thank me later.

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