Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004)

Dir. by Xan Cassavetes

Xan Cassavetes’s Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession tells the parallel, rise-and-fall stories of a Los Angeles pay-TV channel and Jerry Harvey, the man who acted as its chief programmer and svengali. Harvey, as the film informs us in the opening minutes, murdered his second wife in 1988 before turning the gun on himself, and the “tragedy” of his end is ostensibly at the heart of Cassavetes’s documentary. I say “ostensibly” and put scare quotes around “tragedy,” though, because in Z Channel the only real tragedy is the loss to film buffs of Harvey’s single-minded cinephilia. We’re reminded of this loss again and again, as talking head after talking head (Altman, Tarrantino, Payne, Jarmusch, Verhoeven, etc.) wax nostalgic for the days when any Los Angelino could turn on Z Channel and see Berlin Alexanderplatz, The 400 Blows, an Italian skin flick, or the premiere of Peckinpah’s cut of The Wild Bunch. Cassavetes includes a bounty of clips from Harvey’s favorite films and supplements her story with interviews of his co-workers and friends.

I love many of the same films that Harvey loved. And I would pay quite a lot to have a station like Z Channel beamed into my home. Watching Cassavetes’s film, I was once again reminded — as I assume was Cassavetes’s intention — of how pedestrian and market-driven so much of current film programming is, both theatrically and on cable. But, so what? I knew that before the film began. When asked whether writing political theater is just “preaching to the choir,” Tony Kushner once responded:

A good preacher rattles her congregants’ smugness and complacency, and congregants do the same for the preacher. Good preachers are exhilarating to listen to, and the converted have a lot to think about. So this “preaching to the converted” question doesn’t address all religious practice, or all theater — just crummy religion and inept theater.

Z Channel is a crummy film. It’s poorly constructed from short segments that offer superficial observations about specific films (“the director’s cut is obviously better”), the film industry (“without studio support and marketing, a film doesn’t stand a chance”), and Harvey himself (“he was seeing a psychiatrist several afternoons a week”). As an aside, I was also annoyed by Cassavetes’s systematic use of only the most provocative film clips — for example, the hot tub scene from McCabe and Mrs. Miller and the pagans in Andrei Rublev. Instead of rattling her audience’s smugness, Cassavetes relies upon it, offering up a paean to cinephilia that is audacious enough to equate metaphorically the death of a TV station (and the eclectic programming it represented) with a murder/suicide.

Z Channel comes to life for only one brief moment during the very end. After describing the last few days of Harvey’s life, Cassavetes includes a brief snippet from one of his former friends and colleagues. Barely containing his emotion, he says something to the effect of, “There’s a danger of turning Jerry into a hero here, and I’ve got a real problem with that.” I sat upright in my chair. It was the sentiment I’d been waiting for more than an hour to hear expressed. Lest we take this warning too seriously, though, Cassavetes then cuts to Robert Altman, who, when asked the same question about Harvey, pronounces with little hesitation, “I like him.”

I did a quick scan of other online reviews of Z Channel and was disappointed to find so many critics accepting this redemptive narrative of the inspiring soul who was taken from us, tragically, and whose work for the integrity of cinema we should take up in his stead. Such a reading is possible only because of Cassavetes’s decision to elide the violence of Harvey’s end. How would the tone of the film change, for example, had she included reports from the crime scene or interviews with his wife’s surviving family? Instead, we are offered only one quick glance at a photo of the woman who later would be brutally murdered, and a few fond remembrances of her from Harvey’s friends.