It’s a bit disconcerting when you personally know the subject of a documentary. It’s even stranger when that subject was a murder victim.
Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession chronicles the ups and (many) downs of a deceased Los Angeles film buff named Jerry Harvey. If you think you’re obsessed with movies, you have nothing on Harvey. In the movie, Harvey’s ex-wife tells how he once literally spoke of nothing but Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr. Strangelove for 24 hours.
Harvey began as a programmer for a movie theater but made L.A. history when he joined The Z Channel, an independent cable-TV channel that began broadcasting in 1974. In the prehistoric days of cable before HBO, Z gained its reputation and cache by showing uncut movies of all kinds, 24 hours a day.
After Harvey wrote several letters of complaint to Z about their informational errors and lack of range, Z decided to hire him as a full-time programmer. Harvey went to town on movies, showing everything from obscure European art films to Star Wars.
In the movie, several major filmmakers and stars, including Robert Altman and James Woods, rave about how their more obscure movies received a second life via broadcast on Z. (Although Woody Allen’s long-time producer Charles Joffe is interviewed, strangely unmentioned is how it’s believed that Z’s frequent broadcasts of Annie Hall help to win the unsung comedy several Oscars, including Best Picture.)
Along with Harvey’s successes, the movie chronicles his checkered family history and his life-long battle with depression. When cable channels such as HBO muscled in on Z’s territory, Z’s owners looked more to the bottom line and decided to run sports events along with movies. The movie’s final half-hour covers the sad decline of both Z and Harvey, whose depression finally moved him to shoot and kill his second wife and then himself.
The documentary is well-done and extremely engrossing. Yet it almost serves as a cautionary tale, a Taxi Driver for movie buffs, showing how a singular obsession–-even with something as artistically worthwhile as film–-can have negative consequences.
(My personal connection with the story: Harvey’s murdered wife, Deri Rudulph, was my employer for the brief time that I lived in L.A. She was one of the most generous, wonderful people I’ve ever met. Ten days after I returned to Jacksonville, I received the sad news about her murder. I was asked to be interviewed for this movie but could not make it to L.A. in time.)