“Z Channel, Heaven’s Gate, and Jerry Harvey”: A Retrospective | [Out of Order]

Greetings, and welcome back to the Train. If this is your first time visiting, I am your conductor and movie connoisseur Gavin Nowak writing here this evening. On tonight’s insightful episode of Out of Order, let’s take a time machine back to the early 80s, before the popularity of theater cable networks like HBO and Showtime. Enter Jerry Harvey, a classic exemplar of a cinephile (or in other words, having a passionate love of film). He helped pioneer the likes of many failed motion pictures by blossoming in them new life through his Z Channel. So, how did the “film festival in your home every night” fall from grace? Let’s get this show on the road and look at the legacy of one lunatic legend.

Although the influence of Harvey’s ingenious creative control would grow, ‘the Z’ started modestly back in 1974 as a straightforward pay service around the Southern California locale. It held a middle ground between airing conventional blockbusters that were far from their heyday in cinema chains and lesser-known oddities on the lineup. Eventually, Harvey was recruited to assist in operating the schedule of Z Channel in 1980. At the time a programmer for a prior community theater and having a single writing credit for the 1978 spaghetti western China 9, Liberty 37, Harvey likely independently elevated the average movie tube into a movie lover’s paradise. Even despite how it never inflated to more of western America, the impact of Harvey’s novelty was practically worldwide.

His encyclopedic assortment of cult movies from the crypt and director’s extended cuts became staples of the hit Z Channel, even for a handful of years having more viewers then the available yet recycled TV feature airings in Los Angeles. While Z was under Harvey’s out-of-the-ordinary approach it maintained an eclectic personality that later down the road inspired filmmakers Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill) and Jim Jarmusch (Stranger than Paradise, Mystery Train), Turner Classic Movies, and some individual video epithets such as Grindhouse Releasing.

Pretty neat promo for the film Death Race 2000 here

Director of the Oscar-winning 1978 The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino released two years later the 3 and a half hour long epic Heaven’s Gate; due to the skeptical distribution studio removing a little over 60 minutes of the runtime, the critical response turned up zealously negative. Perhaps all hope had been forlorn, but then an unexpected critical reappraisal took place, where audiences could at long last envision Cimino’s true vision. That was after Harvey meshed back the unused hour-length footage into a restored uncut version of Heaven’s Gate and spotlighted it on Z. He literally rose the feature back from it’s grave!

Of course, his renaissance of upturned forgotten classics would carry on through out the vivid backdrop of the 1980s. A few titles that were broadcast by Harvey salvaged from the decade before included Videodrome, Whose Life is it Anyway?, Harry and Tonto, Jesus Christ Superstar, Death Race 2000, and extended cuts of other box office flops like the mafia biography Once Upon a Time in America and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The Z was on a stellar winning streak for years, going out of the way to recover director’s cuts, presenting films when applicable in their intended aspect ratio dimensions, and with their subscriber tally increasing daily. What defiance could perchance bring an end to this unstoppable powerhouse? As we’ll quickly learn, both inner and outside causes would evidently bring Z to it’s premature demise…

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“We bring the arcade experience home!”

So, Jerry Harvey thought he could have it all. But, as history would depict, alas, Z and Harvey would share the same unfortunate fate. Notwithstanding that Harvey was generally viewed as a mellow but academic personality, his own personal demons revolving around his two sisters’ suicides would haunt him. After tackling with their deaths for many hard nights, Harvey too ended his life on April 9, 1988. Sparing the details, it was truly a unprecedented shock to his colleagues, and the Z Channel would never genuinely be the same again. Meanwhile, a year later following Harvey’s death, the once esteemed Z Channel was steadily being chewed out by most other opposing cable TV in the L.A county. To stay alive in the kerfuffle, blocks of sports programs would be wedged in between the varied films, although even in this conclusion the sports would also play a hand in the networks’s expiration. The Z had, on one sorrowful day, faded to utter darkness on television screens after the John Ford film My Darling Clementine, the channel’s final program. It was then hastily replaced by SportsChannel Los Angeles. The outcome of Harvey’s suicide would usher in the equal death of the Z Channel spirit. Because, as many of his friends like Cimino and FX Feeney hypothesize, when his life was ended, so was the Z’s.

Though perhaps, just perhaps, that spark wasn’t burned out entirely from the hearts of movie wizards. In 2004, a documentary directed by the daughter of scholarly director John Cassavetes (Shadows, A Woman Under the Influence) called Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, would be released to select theaters. The film, featuring plenty of investing interviews and snippets of the motion pictures the Z would broadcast, has enlightened student movie buffs with an installation of how Harvey formed a golden era. Experiencing the love of the channel and the life of the mentally scourged Jerry Harvey has helped me appreciate the simple coterie of aspiring filmmakers seeing eye to eye.

Could we too resurrect that touching feeling of community within the new generation of aspiring writers and directors? Instead of rather treating our movie-going trips as diversions from modern living? Well, not for some time, no. That may be rather laughable to tie loose ends so quickly. But hey, it’s a start.

Later…


NEXT WEEK | A Very Merry Espionage Christmas Concludes!

3 thoughts on ““Z Channel, Heaven’s Gate, and Jerry Harvey”: A Retrospective | [Out of Order]

  1. I’ve never heard of the Z Channel or Harvey. And…goodness…his sisters commit suicide and he follows them. What kind of twisted family did he come from?

    I remember the Coleco Vison commercial. I also remember Heaven’s Gate, though I don’t think I have ever seen it.

    Liked by 1 person

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