Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

January 28, 2012 11 Min Read

Review by: Christopher Bligh

Plot: What’s it about?

A few months ago, I stumbled upon a film about the rise and fall of a channel based out of Los Angeles and it’s chief programmer, a film lover of the popular and obscure who’s life ended tragically one morning in the late 1980s. With its mix of film clips and interviews, I was hooked beyond anything except missing the last 30 minutes of it thanks to a phone call from a friend I hadn’t heard from in quite some time. What I did see of it was mindblowing and a second showing of this film came later that night and setting a timer would be the easiest way to catch up with it. During that, I had seen myself captivated the same way holding back my sleep sticking with it all the way through despite the tape running. It’s about a time, the movies, a life of one man, one channel and the people that were part of it both in the movies and at the channel. In the tradition of saving the best for last, the last letter of the alphabet summed up this Magnificent Obsession of Z Channel.

It’s Los Angeles and one of the most popular cable channels came at the end of the dial. For many years, the Z Channel boasted quality films with great reception and as the years went by, the taste of films varied in the widest of directions. That was thanks to a programmer named Jerry Harvey who seeked out great work and hard to find work to give cinematic artists their due whether it be a director’s cut or an unappreciated work that can be given a chance to be seen. In between, Jerry faced struggles in between and one that would lead to his unexpected end both to himself and the beloved channel. Through film clips, interviews with viewers from the film community and friends, it’s the story of the channel that kept its quality and its programmer that kept the diversity on the air as far as it can go.

The first five minutes of this film provides a preview and a disclaimer. If any viewer is willing to go beyond that five minutes, they are in for a treat that shows a great appreciation of film seen through many eyes and a person that was responsible for bringing that appreciation to homes in California.

It’s astonishing how this channel was one of the few places that certain butchered films were saved thanks to an extended cut which gave credibility to a few and gave a place for filmmakers that were not as well known to the public but their work spoke for itself (the section on filmmaker Stuart Cooper was quite intriguing).

This is also about the man who programmed it and the personal demons that he encounters before and during his tenure at Z told by the people who knew him best at the channel and in his personal life.

There are parts that are depressing and there are parts that are exciting and director Xan Cassavetes keeps a nice balance between the two without losing the audience thanks to it’s many participants and their comments such as James Woods, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman and film reviewer FX Feeney (including a great one describing the movies after 11PM). But wait, there’s more!

It provides a programming digest of films that are fairly known and that are hardly known and this documentary does what the best of them are able to achieve. It’s able to show what made the channel great and to represent it’s importance in the best way possible along with at the same time broadening the cinematic horizons for film buffs with knowledge of films from all directions and giving them justice to not only listen to their inclusion but to be intrigued to see the works themselves.

(Sidenote:as of writing this review I have seen 15 of the many movies featured since viewing this film the first time thanks in part to the channel’s weekend on IFC and a high recommendation to catch as many of them on the big screen because the ones I had seen were very much worth it)

Overall, Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession is magnificence in itself that is a helluva ride that’s touching, chilling, loving and most of all an entertaining obsession through all of it’s 122 minutes.

Video: How does it look?

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession is given a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation with marvelous results with a few of the film clips showing the best picture quality possible if only a few flaws apparent during the film clips but on the interview clips not a scratch to be seen. It’s also good to note that the majority of clips shown have retained their original aspect ratio as shown (Few have their ratio during the broadcast version of the film). Even the scenic shots filmed on their own give the film a unique look without many flaws visually. A very good transfer all the way.

Audio: How does it sound?

The Dolby Digital 2.0 track on this presentation is the proper choice as the film is mostly driven by the dialogue by the participants and the clips which were mostly from films pre-1990 when films were not as equipped with upgraded sound and both are displayed nicely without many effects throughout all channels with all dialogue coming out extremely clear. The only thing resembling anything big on this track is the music used during the feature by Steven Hufsteter that uses his score to a minimum (which is used effectively in the few places its used, reminding of some of Sidney Lumet’s best films with the bulk used at the beginning and at the end and in little spurts throughout the piece).

Supplements: What are the extras?

Representing this film nicely, Z Channel is given the 2 Disc treatment by Hart Sharp and it all starts with the sole extra on Disc 1 is a running commentary with director Xan Cassavetes and crew. Through this track, Xan and company go through all aspects of the making of this documentary from getting the participants for this film as well as the subject of clearance of clips along with a cost cutting tecnique Xan was looking to resort to in case of any difficulty. This and many more is discussed giving a great insight of the film with few gaps but with a lot of great stories, comments and a phenomenal track.

On Disc 2, there are many scenes that were cut from the original film but retained here is a little more from the filmmakers and the people involved along with a few faces that weren’t seen in the finished film, longtime Peckinpah assistant & friend Katy Haber in 2 sections and director Richard Brooks who makes a great comment on why he loves Z Channel during the AFI Salute to Z. All of the clips are great and are worthy seeing away from the film as a small postscript to a few things not covered in the finished product.

On top of that there is the entire Castaway’s Corner radio interview with Jerry Harvey which is played throughout the film in its entirety and a Z Channel Gallery that displays the magazine that subscribers received and it’s wonderous artwork along with highlighting a few of the films and text articles in bigger type (a great one comes from Martin Scorsese about director David Cronenberg).

Lastly, this title comes with a 24 page collector’s booklet that is modeled after the Z Channel Magazine and showing all the illustrations and description of the films included in this feature as well as a list of the films.

An unexpected gem that arrived to this viewer in the middle of the year, Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession is one of the best documentaries this year as well as one of the best releases on DVD this year thanks to its playful commentary by the director and the bunch as well as a few other little surprises throughout the film as well as the second disc that comes very well recommended all around as a worthy addition to any DVD collection.

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