“i know that i know nothing” – socrates.
watching this film, and seeing a sampling of the great diversity of films that the z channel brought to its subscribers, cements this idea as well as anything. not to be conceited or anything, but people sometimes tell me that i know a lot about film and that i should parlay that into some sort of career. i always shoot back with: “i really don’t know that much about film.” they think it’s humility, but it’s really a mark of how much i know about film: enough to know that i know nothing.
the Z channel was the first paid channel in the nation (1974), the first movie cable channel. it was only available in LA and, at its height, it had only 100,000 subscribers, but its impact on cable and film is immeasurable. i’m lucky enough to have a vague memory of its existence. my dad was a subscriber, he got the monthly programs and he still talks about the channel to this day. this documentary addresses the rise and fall of the z channel, its impact and its program director – jerry harvey.
by 1982 the z channel had 80K subscribers in LA while HBO and showtime, which were fighting to get a decent subscriber base, had only 14K and 7K respectively. the z channel offered an eclectic selection of programming – the artsy fartsy, the neglected, the trashy t&a pics, etc.; they had it all. their programming was unlike anything i know of today because it gave such a wide view of “film” as to include classic american films like midnight cowboy or chinatown, as well as foreign classics by bergman and bertolucci and kurosawa, as well as late nite fare such as the emmanuelle films, and lost films like “bad timing,” and cult classics, and blockbusters like “the empire strikes back,” and over-looked masterpieces, and directors’ cuts of otherwise watered-down pictures like heaven’s gate and once upon a time in america. in this way jerry harvey and his staff encapsulated just about everything that cinema has to offer.
the documentary pieces together interviews with all sorts of industry folk – film critics like f.x. feeney, filmmakers like tarantino, altman, zsigmond, jarmusch, etc., as well as friends and co-workers of jerry harvey. one of the assistant programmers was actually a ucla student who worked at videotheque (where jerry discovered him) – a video store in westwood which my dad and i used to visit somewhat frequently. the documentary also splices in segments of the films that the z channel showed.
watching quentin tarantino talk about the impact z channel had on him was pretty fun. actually, hearing him talk about film in general is fun. it’s a lot like seeing magic johnson talk about basketball – they both have a childlike enthusiasm for their respective loves and it translates very clearly in the way they talk about them. of course it helps that each are so gifted and knowledgeable that you can ride their enthusiasm without second-guessing their interpretation of a given item. it’s one thing to be enthusiastic about a film like fantastic four, it’s another to be excited about a film like the good, the bad, and ugly and be able to discuss it in a very impassioned, yet informed way.
it’s impossible to guage the impact that the z channel had. clearly it had an impact on my father, who has said that the z channel kept his love alive for the many years between college and true cable/vhs. naturally, that likely means it had a residual effect on me. beyond the everyday nobodies like my dad and i, the z channel helped garner james woods an academy award nomination for his role in salvador (at least according to him). the film, which was in and out of theaters very quickly, was rediscovered by z channel subscribers because harvey pushed for a critic to interview woods at the same time that the z channel magazine was putting salvador on the front page and replaying the picture on tv. this, woods says, was the impetus behind his nomination for a best actor award that year.
sadly, the z channel didn’t last because hbo and show time had more money to throw around, jerry harvey died, and they chose to bring on sports in order to bolster revenue a bit…which turned out to be a bad business/artisitc decision. harvey, who battled depression throughout his life, killed his wife and himself in the mid-80s and the z channel folded within a year. directed by the daughter of john cassavetes.