Text size

What do director Paul Verhoeven and actor James Woods have in common? Both of them claim they owe their careers to a television channel that, even at the peak of its success, broadcast to only 100,000 viewers in Los Angeles and its environs. And what did the channel broadcast? Only films - foreign films, as the Americans call films that are made outside of the United States in a language other than English, Hollywood classics, newer films that did not succeed at the movie theaters, cult films and even porn films. And all these films were shown in full - unlike on other television channels, there were no commercial breaks.

The story of this channel, the first in the United States to show only movies, is presented in the documentary "Z Channel - A Magnificent Obsession," which will be broadcast tonight on Hot Prime cable. In the film, Verhoeven relates that had Channel Z not broadcast his early films, which he directed in his native country of Holland, he would not have been invited to Hollywood in 1987 to direct his first American film, "Robocop."

James Woods relates that had it not been for Jerry Harvey, the program director for the channel, who admired the film "Salvador" in which Woods starred (the 1986 film was a box office flop), and insisted on broadcasting it on the channel, he would not have won an Oscar nomination, as did the screenwriters (Rick Boyle and the film's director, Oliver Stone).

The documentary, which was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004, was directed by Alexandra Cassavetes, the daughter of director John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowlands. In a telephone conversation with her from Los Angeles, where she was born in 1965 and where she lives today, she relates that the idea for making the film came up when a feature film project of hers fell through because the producers thought it was not commercial enough.

At a party not long afterward Cassavetes and some friends discussed the bleak situation of the American film industry and groused about how it was no longer possible in Hollywood to produce films like the ones made in the 1970s.

"During that conversation," relates Cassavetes, "we brought up names of films that had influenced us, American and not American, and we recalled that we had seen them on the Z Channel. I suddenly realized what a huge influence this channel had on my generation, and not only on my generation.

"I started to ask the people around me whether they, in fact, knew what had happened to the channel, and I found out that nobody knew. It was as though the memory of this cultural institution had been completely erased, as well as the memory of the person without whom the channel would not have existed, Jerry Harvey. That was when I decided to make the film that would tell the story of the channel and the story of the man whose love and commitment to film bordered on obsession, which had magnificent sides but also dark sides."

Influenced Altman

The film's subtitle, "A Magnificent Obsession," is the same as that of the most famous melodrama in the history of American film. The first version was directed by John M.Stahl in 1935 and the second by Douglas Sirk in 1954, and both of them were shown on the Z Channel on programs devoted to the genre, which was not very respectable at the time.

The Z Channel began to broadcast in the Los Angeles area in 1974. However, only after Jerry Harvey was appointed program director in 1981 did the channel become a very influential phenomenon. Harvey was then 32, and his appointment came after he had sent the channel directors a series of angry letters of complaint about the level of the broadcasts.

"During my adolescence," says Cassavetes, "I watched this channel all the time. I would shut myself into my room and watch movies. My parents also watched it when they had time. The American movies of that period didn't interest me. They looked childish to me, and like many adolescents I wanted to see films that were aimed at adults.

"I especially loved non-American films, for example the films of Isabelle Adjani, whom I admired. I developed a truly intimate relationship with the channel, and every month I'd wait with anticipation for the program brochure that Harvey edited with great love and talent. On the cover there would be mention of the main program for the month and inside there were also articles written by film historians and critics."

In Cassavetes' documentary, many film people make guest appearances, acknowledging that their lives and work were also influenced by the Z Channel. Among them are Robert Altman, Jim Jarmush and Quentin Tarantino. "There wasn't another channel like it in all of the United States," says Cassavetes. "Los Angeles and its environs were almost a desert with respect to classic and non-American films. On the East Coast, especially in New York, you could see movies like that - there were cinemas there that specialized in this - but that didn't exist on the West Coast.

"Suddenly, thanks to the Z Channel, we were exposed to films by Francois Truffaut and Federico Fellini, Claude Chabrol and Michelangelo Antonioni. Also, and this is equally important, we were exposed to the history of the American cinema. For the first time we were able to watch the films of Howard Hawks, Orson Welles or Nicholas Ray. It mustn't be forgotten that all this happened before the age of video and, of course, of the DVD, which have made films accessible to everyone."

A pistol as a present

The glory years of the Z Channel were very short. In the 1980s competition came from pay television stations like HBO and Cinemax, which also broadcast films mostly, without commercial breaks. But these channels, which gradually spread throughout the United States, were far more commercial and focused mainly on American films - as new as possible.

Facing financial difficulty, the Z Channel was sold to a company in Seattle, which replaced its programming with sports broadcasts. Jerry Harvey, who suffered from psychological problems and was an alcoholic from a tender age, found himself unemployed and distanced from what had been the center of his life. When he was 39, he murdered his second wife and killed himself.

However, during those brief years the channel succeeded, under Harvey's management, in doing a lot.

The Z channel served as a substitute for the cinematheque, which does not exist at all in the United States, and the policy it followed was similar to that of Henri Langlois, the founder of the influential Paris Cinematheque. "Harvey believed that everything should be broadcast," relates Cassavetes, "both masterpieces and totally trivial movies. It was this combination that transmitted to us the message that what makes the cinema unique is the blurring of the boundaries between high and low, between poplar and elitist. Harvey chose what he liked. He had, for example, a special love for the actress Jacqueline Bisset, so one month he devoted an entire program to her and her films. I like that," says Cassavetes, who interviewed Bisset for her film.

Harvey made friends with many of the filmmakers and actors whose films he chose to show. He developed a special friendship with film director Sam Peckinpah, whose nonconformist behavior destroyed his career. Something of Peckinpah's self-destructiveness found an echo in Harvey. He followed the difficulties Peckinpah had in finding work in Hollywood in the 1970s and the 1980s and showed his films again and again. Peckinpah's death in 1984 at the age of 59 hit him hard. During their friendship Peckinpah gave Harvey a pistol as a gift. This is the gun he used to kill his wife and himself.

Harvey's most important contribution to his friend's legacy was a reconstruction of a full copy of his best-known film, "The Wild Bunch," from 1969, which had been cut by the producers when it first came out. The broadcast of the complete version on Z Channel was an event. And Harvey reconstructed copies of other films that had been mercilessly cut by their producers or distributors in the United States, among them Luciano Visconti's "The Leopard" from 1963 and Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" from 1980.

Two narratives

Cassavetes' film follows in parallels the rise and fall of the Z Channel and the story of the man who created it in his image. "There was a synergy between the man and the channel," she says. "Harvey's love for film bordered on obsession and derived from a huge pain he had inside him which he did not know how to deal with. People who knew him have said that he was marked from an early age as a violent person, so his end was not unexpected. There was a kind of romanticism in him that was channeled entirely toward the movies, and this romanticism ultimately bordered on insanity.

"In the film I tried to create a correct balance between the story of the channel and Harvey's story. As far as I am concerned, the channel's story is the main thing, and I was constantly afraid that because of its sensational nature, Harvey's story would be in the center. There were those who said that because of this caution, his story remained too marginal and I don't provide enough explanations of what happened to him. But is this possible to explain?"

The documentary includes clips from many films, and the way Cassavetes integrates them testifies to the love and the admiration she feels for them. However, there are no clips from her father's films. Were John Cassavetes films, which are no doubt worthy and deserving of broad exposure, ever shown on the channel?

"I was told that Harvey contacted my father a number of times," replies Cassavetes with a laugh, "but my father imposed such conditions that were so difficult that Harvey could not agree to them. He was against retrospectives and argued that retrospectives are done only for dead directors. He demanded that a film of his be shown on the channel only once a month and that during that month a still from the film would appear on the cover of the program. From what I can recall of my father, who died in 1989, I am certain that this story is true."