Seeing Xan Cassavettes' recent documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession I became somewhat jealous that I didn't grow up in LA and have the access to this amazing independent pay-TV service that programmed the most eclectic films imaginable. Z Channel, started in 1974, was freeform defined, broadcasting everything from never-seen-on-TV foreign films to celebrated Golden Turkeys to kitschy softcore, often showcasing single directors or actors for a given week. They were unafraid to air the epic 15 hour Berlin Alexanderplatz. Ratings were not an issue, quality was. And it worked; Z Channel reigned supreme (kicking both HBO and Cinemax's collective asses in the LA area), influencing many minds and breathing life into many overlooked films that the promo machine just didn't work correctly the first time around.
It was all programmed by Jerry Harvey, an obsessive (and self-admittedly crazy) personality who lived and breathed cinema, often aided by young kids he'd pluck out of video stores whom he felt were kindred spirits. Though he was relatively small in stature vocation-wise on entertainment biz terms, Harvey commanded total respect in the industry and was closely followed for his insight to the finer facets of movie programming, clearly laid out for the viewer by the channel's monthly guide/magazine. He was the first person to hype many unknown directors who passed through the Hollywood machine unnoticed (Robert Altman became a friend, as did a forgotten-by-the-industry Sam Peckinpah). After Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate was ruled a disaster and killed United Artists by being the biggest commercial flop in Hollywood history, Harvey's posthumous focus on the film's uncut version (something he also did with Leone's Once Upon a Time In America, a film that in its first go-around got edited "by some guy who did Police Academy 2") actually swayed some influential critics to do a complete 180. It was that kind of nurturing and passion that made Harvey one of the industry's most valued commodities in the 1970's and 80's.
But, like many driven artists, Harvey himself was completely riddled with many demons in his life. This coupled with the pressures of trying to remain pure to a vision amidst the naggings of a commercial network leaning on him eventually manifested itself in the murder of his wife, and suicide. It's a sad, yet fascinating story worth checking out as I think it would appeal to many WFMU listeners, if only for the montage of great films excerpted and name-checked that can easily go on one's to-rent list. There are some interesting interviews as well with people who were close to Harvey, plus Hollywood luminaries like Jackie Bissett, James Woods, Quentin Tarantino, and Jim Jarmusch all giving testimony.