By Peter Hanson | May 13, 2005

If you frequent the haunts of the hardcore movie buff — grimy revival houses, dingy video stores bursting with esoteric titles, awkward personal appearances by the famous and/or the fallen — chances are you’ve run into a few people for whom the term “cinemaniac” is more than just an affectionate handle. These diehard film geeks live and breathe cinema, and the hardiest of them find jobs that allow them to shut out everyone who doesn’t share their obsession. Some of these cinemaniacs tiptoe toward the edge of sanity with their insular perspectives and compulsive behaviors — raise your hand if you’ve got a spiral notebook loaded with titles of obscure films you want to track down — but a few of the most ardent moviegoers might be maniacs in a much more dangerous sense.

Jerry Harvey was one such man. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Harvey lovingly programmed Z Channel, a Los Angeles pay-cable station which sounds almost unimaginably wonderful to those not lucky enough to have lived in L.A. during its heyday. Z Channel showed nothing but movies, yet unlike the national channels it preceded and (on a local level) held its own against, Z Channel catered to movie fans with expansive tastes. Tuning in at a random moment, you’d be as likely to stumble onto an obscure Claude Chabrol drama as a broad Gene Wilder comedy. Jerry Harvey spent a decade delivering miraculous content to the hungry populace of the world’s movie capital.

But, as viewers discover in the compelling new documentary “Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession,” Harvey’s genius was matched by an equally powerful blackness of the soul. After battling severe emotional problems for years, Harvey wrote the last chapter of his colorful life in April 1988, when he killed his second wife and then himself. Little more than a year later, Z Channel went off the air in a not entirely coincidental turn of events.

In her feature debut, director Xan Cassavetes attempts to create a balance between investigating Harvey’s slow spiral toward a bleak demise and celebrating Z Channel’s glory days. It’s easy to imagine her finding that perfect balance with a touch more pruning before “Z Channel” hits the Independent Film Channel, for which it was made, and it seems hard-hearted to criticize the 120-minute version just shown at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Cassavetes’ movie is sensitive without being sentimental, serious without being earnest, and thorough without being pedantic. Despite losing focus at certain points (more on that in a moment), the picture is wonderfully entertaining and insightful.

The documentary is constructed in standard fashion. Talking-head interviews with people from Harvey’s life, and admirers of his work, are interspersed with a mind-boggling array of film clips that represent the breadth of what Z Channel offered to its subscribers. The clips alone justify watching this movie, because they’re sure to leave even the most jaded filmgoer euphoric with renewed passion for the cinema. It’s hard to imagine another picture juxtaposing a clip from Nicholas Ray’s bleak Hollywood drama “In a Lonely Place” with one from “The Empire Strikes Back.” It’s also hard to imagine any picture licensing as many (and as varied) clips as Cassavetes features. Just assembling all this footage was a monumental accomplishment, and the clips go a long way to explaining why Harvey made such a deep impression on the L.A. filmmaking community.

Beyond the interviews and the clips, however, there isn’t much to “Z Channel.” There’s virtually no archival material beyond a few photographs and a radio interview with Harvey. This paucity of first-person elements forces Cassavetes to rely on generic imagery to liven up certain sequences, so we see grainy footage of the UCLA campus during scenes pertaining to Harvey’s time as a student there, as well as slow zooms of the L.A. skyline during clips from the radio interview.

The most problematic stretch of the picture features sound bites from celebrity interviewees sandwiched between glorious film clips. Filmmakers including Robert Altman, Henry Jaglom and Kubrick collaborator James B. Harris speak to the experience of having Z Channel broadcast their work, as do actors such as Jacqueline Bisset and James Woods. Concurrently, younger talents including Quentin Tarantino and Alexander Payne discuss being fans of the channel.

This long, long section derails the narrative about Harvey and becomes an out-of-place — though thoroughly enjoyable — rap session about how much all involved love the scope of world cinema. If nothing else, watching “Z Channel” will give you dozens of titles to write into that spiral notebook of yours; the documentary spotlights rarities ranging from “Something of Value” (a very early apartheid movie from the ’50s with Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier) to “Le Magnifique” (a freaked-out ’70s spin on “Walter Mitty” starring Bisset and Jean-Paul Belmondo).

The joy of that section gives way, awkwardly, to the bleak last passage concerning the end of Harvey’s life. The intent may have been to replicate the high viewers felt watching Harvey’s titular obsession in action, but the effect is that the movie starts as a documentary, turns into something like one of those AFI celebratory shows (“100 Years, 100 Bitchin’ Movies,” maybe), then transforms back into a documentary.

There’s so much to admire and even love in this movie, however, that it’s tempting to make excuses for the picture’s shortcomings. Cassavetes (daughter of indie god John) compensates for the lack of archival material by overdosing on dazzling clips, and she and editor Iain Kennedy arrange interviews so judiciously that we’re always left wanting more, even though we get quite a lot.

F.X. Feeney, a critic who wrote for Z Channel’s beloved program guides, dominates the on-camera interviews not only because his close friendship with Harvey sparks numerous anecdotes and insights, but because he’s wonderfully eloquent and articulate. He talks about how Z Channel tried to reach “the uncommon denominator,” and lovingly describes Harvey the “midwife” of the movies he showed.

The picture makes a case for placing Harvey on the Mount Rushmore of film preservationists — his broadcasts of uncut versions of “1900” and “Heaven’s Gate,” among others, helped rehabilitate the reputations of maligned films (and paved the way for the current DVD “director’s cut” craze). What’s more, Paul Verhoeven credits Z Channel broadcasts of his early Dutch films with helping establish his Hollywood career. Filmmakers both famous and unheralded (notably Stuart Cooper) talk about Harvey’s important role in their careers.

Yet for all the detail Cassavetes uses to laud Harvey’s accomplishments, she’s frustratingly vague about Harvey’s personality. She lines up clues — a rough childhood, which the director weirdly chooses to introduce very late in the movie; a sibling’s suicide; wild mood swings — then never connects the dots. While a pat explanation for Harvey’s final actions would have been a pointless inclusion, it still feels peculiar to spend 90 minutes watching a story about a troubled guy who did something wonderful, then 30 watching a story about a deeply disturbed man who did something horrible.

Still, one can’t fault Cassavetes for lack of ambition. “Z Channel” doesn’t quite achieve its goal of seamlessly interweaving the stories of the channel and the genius who programmed it, but it’s hard to imagine taking another approach. A movie about Harvey that sidelined an exploration of Z Channel would lack an essential dimension, and one about Z Channel that ignored Harvey’s fate would seem shallow. And while “Z Channel” suffers from a lack of focus, the last word one could possibly use to describe the film is shallow. “Z Channel” is in the most important ways a powerful first feature, and it’s memorable both as a rapturous ode to the movies and a provocative window into one man’s tragic madness. Had that window been opened just a bit more, “Z Channel” would be a remarkable film. As is, it’s thoughtful and arresting.

(NOTE: Xan Cassavetes told the LAFF crowd that a filmography of the movies featured in “Z Channel” would be added to the Festival website, www.lafilmfest.com. Such a list would be highly recommended, because the clips featured in “Z Channel” had even seasoned moviegoers salivating to explore the treasures at which those clips hinted.)

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