Directed By: Xan Cassavetes
Starring: Jerry Harvey, F.X. Feeney, Robert Altman
Line from this film: "You just never know when you're living in a golden age"
Trivia: This documentary was screened out of competition at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival
Jerry Harvey loved movies. A graduate of UCLA, he organized a screening of Sam Peckinpah’s “director’s cut” of The Wild Bunch in 1974, and in 1981 became director of programming for Z Channel, a Los Angeles-based movie channel that was one of the first pay cable stations in the U.S. For years, Z Channel was a film lover’s paradise, focusing on foreign and under-seen films while occasionally championing a few that had been savaged by critics. Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, a brilliant 2004 documentary directed by Xan Cassavetes, explores Harvey’s passion for the cinema, and how he helped turn Z Channel into a premiere cable network. But there was another side to Jerry Harvey; a much darker side. Suffering from depression and prone to fits of rage, Harvey, in 1988, shot and killed his wife of two years before turning the gun on himself. Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession gives us the good and the bad, painting as complete a portrait of this troubled individual as it possibly can.
As much a history of the groundbreaking cable station as it is the story of Jerry Harvey, Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession features interviews with current directors (including Quentin Tarantino and Alexander Payne) who were influenced at an early age by the films they saw on Z Channel. Playing movies by Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, and the French New Wave on a regular basis, “Z” introduced these foreign masters to a new generation of fans, while at the same time shining a light on lesser-known works like 1975’s Overlord (directed by Stuart Cooper) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900. In addition, Z Channel gave movies like Michael Cimino’s much-maligned epic western, Heaven’s Gate, a second chance at life, and showed the world why the nearly 4-hour cut of Once Upon a Time in America was a classic (before its U.S. release, the movie was trimmed to just over 2 hours, a version that was panned by critics). In short, Z Channel was a godsend for cinema enthusiasts, and even when HBO and the other big boys started to get a foothold in the L.A. area, nobody was willing to cancel their subscription to “Z”. It was like a film festival in your living room each and every day of the week.
One of the men responsible for the channel’s success was Jerry Harvey. According to those who knew him, Harvey dedicated almost every waking hour to Z Channel, contacting studios and filmmakers on a daily basis in the hopes of uncovering some hidden gems. He was a fan of the cinema from an early age, and prior to joining “Z”, he and his friend Doug Venturelli wrote the screenplay for the Monte Hellman-directed 1978 western China 9, Liberty 37. During his time at Z Channel, Harvey befriended the likes of Michael Cimino, Robert Altman, and Paul Verhoeven, and used his vast knowledge of movies to ensure “Z’ maintained the level of excellence its subscribers had come to expect. Featuring clips from many of the films that Harvey brought to the channel, including Turkish Delight (Verhoeven’s 1973 drama / romance starring a young Rutger Hauer), Fingers (a 1978 crime flick with Harvey Keitel) and Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization, Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession will introduce you to many movies you’ve never seen, some of which you’ll want to seek out immediately.
Admittedly, I become so wrapped up in the tale of Jerry Harvey the cinema nut that I completely forgot there was more to his story. But Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession didn’t let me forget it for long. By way of interviews conducted with former flames and close friends (i.e. critic F.X. Feeney and some of his co-workers at Z Channel), we hear about Jerry’s traumatic childhood, and how his two older sisters both committed suicide, a fact that disturbed him deeply. Doreen Ringer Ross, his live-in girlfriend for 5 years, says there were times Harvey’s tempter would take over, yet when the news broke that, on April 9, 1988, he had killed his second wife, Deri Rudolph, then took his own life, everyone was stunned. Even those who loved the man couldn’t forgive the fact that he murdered his wife (those interviewed speak very highly of Deri, saying she had a vibrant personality and a smile that lit up a room). Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession doesn’t shy away from revealing Harvey’s inner turmoil, which, unfortunately, surfaced in the end.
For over a century, the cinema has served as an escape from the everyday, where, for a couple of hours, people can forget their troubles. But as Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession shows us, sometimes movies aren’t enough to keep the demons at bay.