When you’re a heavily involved movie lover, documentaries about movies, and, for that matter, about movie lovers, are particularly irresistible. They can serve multiple purposes. If you’re familiar with the subject, they’re a pleasant reminder of an era or an artist’s body of work. If you’re not familiar with the subject, they can provide an energetic introduction, and leave you with a shopping list of movies to seek out later.
Xan Cassavetes’ Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, our Saturday midnight show on November 12th, is a particularly superb entry in this field. This documentary puts attention on a couple unacknowledged influences on the modern movie canon: that of cable television on boosting select titles to the popular lexicon, and that of the creative programmers in charge of choosing those titles.
Z Channel started off in 1974 as a simple pay TV service in Los Angeles, running movies that were long done with theatrical runs but not yet exposed on ordinary network television. Even by its modest ambitions of the day, it grew to wield influence over time. For example, since ¾ of voting members of AMPAS were subscribers, films that aired on Z were often able to garner more votes in the Oscar race through that exposure.
The channel soon added interview programs hosted by respected critic Charles Champlin and young genre maven Mick Garris, which further built its reputation as the destination for serious film connoisseurs.
When Z hired Jerry Harvey, a former local repertory cinema programmer and aspiring screenwriter, to be put in charge of selecting movies in 1980, he almost single-handedly elevated them to legendary status. He was responsible for adding cult curiosities and lesser-known filmmakers to the lineup, seeking out director’s cuts, and when possible, presenting films in original aspect ratios instead of cropping them to TV-size dimensions.
Cassavetes, who spent her formative years watching movies on Z, assembles a wide spectrum of rare clips and interview subjects, such as Robert Altman and Alexander Payne, to tell the story of the station that never expanded beyond a stretch of SoCal, but had a worldwide impact nonetheless. She also does not shy away from the unpleasant details of Harvey’s personal life, and the events that led to a shocking and ignominious end for himself and the channel.
A big takeaway from this film is how important curation is in presenting films to the public. While other cable movie channels have always been mostly content to buy batches of movies and run them repeatedly without context (Remember how HBO seemed to stand for “Hey, Beastmaster’s on!” in your teen years?), Z under Harvey’s watch found a balance of providing the hits that most subscribers wanted from a pay channel, and specialty fare for the viewer looking for something out of the ordinary. It’s that maverick spirit that has built the trust and devotion enjoyed today by specialty home video labels, Turner Classic Movies, and, well, our theatre especially.
When Z Channel was first released in 2004, it managed to create the kind of fresh interest on lesser-known works that the station itself had created in its prime. It was through exposure in this film that director Stu Cooper was able to see his films Overlord and The Disappearance, which previously premiered on Z, get reissued on DVD and reach new audiences. Also benefiting from name-checking in the film was the recently departed Andrej Zulawski, whose film The Most Important Thing is to Love received increased demand soon after.
Decades after the demise of Z Channel, and with the exponential rise of movie channels on cable and online streaming, one would think things have improved for the hardcore film fan. But as Rob Zombie pointed out in an interview, “Everything’s accessible, so you can get it, but when everything’s accessible, that means you have to access it. And if you’re not interested, you don’t…Now that you can program your own life, you’re just going to program what you already like. Because of that, people’s taste becomes much more narrow-minded.” And many of these entertainment services are more interested in catering to those narrow niches than creating a thoughtful variety.
We thus encourage you to join us on this upcoming Saturday midnight and learn about the groundbreaking work of Z Channel, a pioneering cultural force which director Henry Jaglom described as, “like a film festival in your house every single night.” And, in the process, add some great movie recommendations to your viewing list. As fans of this documentary, we certainly have!