By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Directed by John Cassavetes' daughter Xan (short for Alexandra), this hugely entertaining documentary tells the surprisingly engrossing story of a beloved cable channel in Los Angeles.
Established in 1974, the Z Channel originally showed two movies a week and was partially responsible for "Annie Hall" winning Best Picture in 1977 (many Oscar voters saw it on television). In 1980, movie nut Jerry Harvey took over and began showing up to 20 movies a week, including special events like the uncut director's versions of "Heaven's Gate," "Once Upon a Time in America" and "The Wild Bunch," as well as tributes to directors and actors, both obscure and well known.
Even without the help of the Internet, Harvey's film knowledge clearly surpassed anyone I've ever known. He single-handedly rediscovered an American director living in London, Stuart Cooper, and ran a marathon of Cooper's films ("Overlord," "The Disappearance"). In 1989, the depressed Harvey killed his wife and shot himself, just before the Z Channel's heyday ended.
Cassavetes interviews the people who were there: film critics Charles Champlin and F.X. Feeney, movie directors Robert Altman, Jim Jarmusch, Alexander Payne, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Verhoeven, and actors James Woods (whose 1986 Oscar nomination for "Salvador" came as a result of the Z Channel) and Theresa Russell.
As a clip film, "Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession" constantly surprises with its choice clips of both rare and beloved films. As a documentary, it has an overwhelming power, delving into the life of a passionate, disturbed man who helped a little to change things for the better.
***1/2 out of ****
(120m | NR)