Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004)

Those of us who grew up before the heyday of cable TV or home video may remember all too well that when we wanted to see a movie we either had the choice of catching it during it's theatrical run or be forced to see it compromised on television years later, interrupted by commercials and often cut to ribbons by censors. Thus it was a minor miracle when pay television channels began to appear in the 1970s offering uncut and uninterrupted movies at home. Xan Cassavettes' documentary Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION details the rise and fall of one of the most influential of these channels, Los Angeles' Z Channel.

Z Channel was one of the first regional pay cable networks. It premiered in 1974 (one year before HBO went national), serving the heart of Los Angeles' film making community. Its programming was a mix of the usual new films straight from their theatrical run and older catalog films. It was an instant success due to its novelty and lack of competition. However, Z Channel didn't hit its stride until 1980 and the arrival of brilliant yet trouble new programmer, Jerry Harvey. Harvey was a lifelong film buff and occasional screenwriter (his one produced screenplay was the Monte Hellman western CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37) who programmed the channel to appeal directly to other film buffs, showcasing director and star retrospectives and going out of his way to show worthwhile films that might otherwise have flown under the radar. He published a monthly programming guide that contained essays often critical of the films shown on the channel because he wanted viewers to make up their own minds regarding a film's quality. Most notably, Harvey was adamant about films being shown in their director's approved versions, making Z Channel one of the first channels to show widescreen films letterboxed. Harvey was also responsible for allowing Michael Cimino to reconstruct his version of HEAVEN'S GATE, allowing for a critical reevaluation of that notorious flop. 

However Jerry Harvey had a dark side and it proved to be the channel's undoing. Harvey had had a lifelong history of mental illness and had flirted with the idea of suicide (his two sisters had also taken their own lives). While he appeared to have his condition under control, a perfect storm of negative circumstances in 1988 proved too much for him. In despair over direct competition with HBO and Showtime (which limited his access to films), a meager operating budget and a sale to Group W (who, using Philadelphia's PRISM pay service as inspiration, planned to supplement Z Channel's movie lineup with local sports), Harvey took his own life as well as the life of his wife, Deri. The channel continued but its guiding force was gone and it disappeared soon thereafter.

While it's impossible to think of Jerry Harvey without thinking of his final days, it's also impossible to underestimate the impact that he and Z Channel had on home movie viewing. Today, unedited, commercial-free movies in their correct aspect ratio are always within reach. That's in large part thanks to Jerry Harvey, who put his love of film ahead of his concern for the bottom line, thinking that enough like-minded people would want what he was offering to make it worthwhile. It's not an exaggeration to say that Harvey changed the way we experience movies at home and Z CHANNEL; A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION is a fitting tribute both to the man and his love of film. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: The Girl Hunters (1963)

When Mickey Spillane's first Mike Hammer novel, I, THE JURY, was released in 1947 it became an instant success, selling over six million copies. Spillane's novels continued to resonate with the public, eventually selling over 200 million copies worldwide. It was inevitable that Mike Hammer would make the jump to motion pictures, which he did in 1953 with I, THE JURY starring Biff Elliot as Hammer. After three films starring three different actors playing Hammer (Elliot, Ralph Meeker and Robert Bray) and a television series starring Darren McGavin, director Roy Rowland decided to go right to the source for his newest Hammer film, THE GIRL HUNTERS: who better to play the iconic detective than Spillane himself?

THE GIRL HUNTERS, based on Spillane's 1962 novel and written by Spillane, Rowland and Robert Fellows, doesn't waste any time with character introductions, assuming (probably rightly) that any audience for the film would already know all they need to about the main players. The film begins with Hammer literally hammered, having gone on an apparently years-long bender brought on by the disappearance and probable murder of the love of his life, his secretary Velda. When Hammer hears a deathbed confession by a murder victim that hints that Velda may still be alive, Hammer sobers up with the intention of rescuing Velda and dispensing justice on anyone who harmed her. Hammer follows a trail of bodies to the beautiful widow of a anti-Communist crusading senator (Shirley Eaton, who of course is unable to resist Hammer's charms) and an elusive band of Communist agents with plans to take over the world. Hammer soon finds himself the target of master assassin The Dragon, who he must defeat in order to save Velda and make the world safe from those dirty commies once and for all.

The plot is pretty ridiculous, engaging in equal parts sex, violence and red baiting, but that turns out to be the film's biggest strength. The loonier the story gets the more it diverts attention from the problem at the center of the film: the gimmick casting of Mickey Spillane as Mike Hammer.  Spillane gets the tough guy attitude down but he's just not a professional actor and it shows. Many of his line readings are flat (especially the voice overs) and he's quite deficient in the screen presence department. It's pretty funny to see this overweight, heavy drinking (Hammer is referred to several times as being a recovered alcoholic but he always seems to have a beer in his hand) middle aged man be irresistible to women, especially Eaton, who is several times out of his league. Luckily, the film surrounds Spillane with some real pros, most notably Lloyd Nolan as an FBI agent who pretty much just sits around and drinks while waiting for Hammer to crack the case. And before you get your hopes up, the long awaited reunion with Velda never comes. The film seems to forget all about her in favor of an exciting, violent (at least for 1963) climax. Maybe in the next film.

There were plans to film Spillane's next Hammer novel, THE SNAKE, again with Spillane as Hammer but perhaps wisely those plans fell through. THE GIRL HUNTERS would prove to be the last on-screen Mike Hammer adventure until 1981 when Kevin Dobson played him in the TV movie MARGIN FOR MURDER. There would be one more big screen Hammer feature, 1982's I, THE JURY starring Armand Assante, before Hammer returned to television played by Stacey Keach beginning in 1984. Today THE GIRL HUNTERS is thought of, if at all, as a curiosity.  It deserves a slightly better reputation than that. It's a fun, oddball little movie and the casting of Spillane gives it some novelty. Incidentally, this wasn't Spillane's first movie appearance. In 1954 he starred as himself alongside circus owner Clyde Beatty in the bigtop mystery RING OF FEAR, also for producer Robert Fellows. I haven't caught up with that one yet but I plan to soon.

For more overlooked film and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Nothing Lasts Forever (1984)

Tom Schiller was part of the original writing team for SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and stayed with the show for eleven years. During that time as part of his occasional "Schiller's Reel" segment he was given free reign to write and direct short films starring the SNL cast which became famous in their own right, most notably "Don't Look Back in Anger," featuring an elderly John Belushi dancing on the graves of his castmates (ironically made just four years before Belushi became the first SNL cast member to die). In 1984 Schiller was given the opportunity to make the leap to features with NOTHING LASTS FOREVER, a bizarre mix of comedy and fantasy which also serves as an homage to the type of classic Hollywood films that Schiller often paid tribute to in his SNL shorts.

NOTHING LASTS FOREVER takes place in an alternate reality New York City designed to evoke the 1930s (although it's set in the present day) where, after a crippling transportation strike, the Port Authority has taken control of the city, installing a totalitarian government complete with strict immigration laws and P.A. announcements signaling the beginning and end of each work day. Into this insanity comes Adam Beckett (a pre-GREMLINS Zach Galligan), a wanna-be artist who after failing a Port Authority issued art aptitude test is given a dead end job as a sentry at the Holland Tunnel. Because of his acts of kindness towards the city's street people, Adam is adopted by an Illuminati-like cabal of homeless folk who live under the city. The leader of the group (played by veteran character actor Sam Jaffe in his last role) explains that they control every aspect of people's lives everywhere except one place - the moon, which has been turned into a shopping destination for senior citizens under the control of the U.S. government. So Adam boards the next bus to the moon (complete with complementary Lunartinis and on-board entertainment by Eddie Fisher) in order to free the people of the moon, find his purpose in life and meet Eloy, the moon girl of his dreams (Lauren Tom).

NOTHING LASTS FOREVER is every bit as quirky as it sounds and while quirky can also mean irritating in this case it means inventive. The film is so imaginative from the very beginning that by the time Adam boards a bus to a moon populated by hula dancing moon ladies it really doesn't seem like that much of a leap. I get the feeling that Schiller must have thought he wouldn't get the chance to make a second feature (at least with as much creative freedom) so he'd better cram all of his ideas into this one. It also helps that the film is cast with lots of well known actors (Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Imogene Coca, Mort Sahl) that help to make the surroundings less strange. The film is shot is beautiful black and white (which turns to color during the Illuminati and moon sequences) and Schiller makes the most of a meager budget by incorporating stock footage from silent and early talkie films in place of building expensive sets. It's all topped of by a wonderful Howard Shore score that evokes B films of the 1930s.

 As can probably be expected for a film of this nature, it's had its share of distribution troubles. The film went unreleased by its distributor, MGM, perhaps not surprising given their financial problems at the time and the utterly noncommercial nature of the film. However, it has also never had a release on any home video format due to elusive "legal issues." It's surfaced occasionally over the years at special screenings and it had at least on European TV broadcast.  Bill Murray in particular has been a vocal cheerleader for the film and has shown up to help publicize screenings of it whenever possible. Hopefully the film will eventually be able to clear its legal hurdles so it can find a wider audience. It's a fun, lively little film and one that could never get financing from a major studio today. It's a shame that the only convenient way to see this film is via a cruddy bootleg and it would be wonderful if a quality, legal version were to finally be made available.