Thursday, May 12, 2005

Movie: Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004)

Xan Cassavetes’ documentary is currently screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Thanks to IFC, it’s also the best program on television this month.

The film is an homage to the pioneering Los Angeles cable outlet that made subscribers’ homes a home for great cinema. It also tells the story of chief programmer Jerry Harvey, who was single-handedly responsible for the network’s vision but whose life ended in tragedy. Harvey’s personality is largely defined through the films that he cared about, so Cassavetes (John’s daughter) doesn’t attempt to plumb his psychological depths. She simply lays out the sad facts of his case.

This approach allows her to the keep the focus on celebrating the Z Channel aesthetic, which put a premium on foreign films, neglected gems, and director’s cuts of movies like HEAVEN’S GATE, DAS BOOT and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. In many respects, Z Channel prefigured the DVD boom.

It also served as a communal repertory house for the city of Los Angeles; as Jim Jarmusch says in the doc, such a channel wasn’t as necessary in New York, which had numerous revival and art theaters. It’s clear that a sense of community grew up around the station, one that included filmmakers then forgotten (Richard Brooks), at their peak (Oliver Stone and Robert Altman) and waiting in the wings (Quentin Tarantino and Alexander Payne, who, in the film’s high point, proudly wears the vintage Z Channel shirt he received when their monthly magazine printed his letter griping about the size of the letterbox bars during Kurosawa’s HIGH AND LOW.)

Cassavetes shows tremendous skill in her use of film clips. I watch plenty of movies about movies, and this is the first I’ve seen in a while that made me write down a list of titles to rent ASAP. Some of them, I must confess, I’d never heard of before, like THE MAIN THING IS TO LOVE. Expect a few to show up here soon.

Miscellaneous: Link

Every time I see an add for Will Ferrell’s KICKING & SCREAMING, I think, “Am I the only person who remembers the Noah Baumbach movie?” Turns out Slate does, too, and delves into the thorny question of title repetition.