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Mr. Beaks Tells Tales Of Hollywood! Z CHANNEL and OVERNIGHT Reviewed!!

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

This is a just plain great fucking read. Dig in.


What can you say but that it’s some kind of town – a hilly Hades where great novelists and playwrights trotted off seventy years ago to drink themselves terminal whilst hammering out product for enormous sums of cash. Many great works of art have escaped from its venal grasp, but very little good is ever done within it. This sprawling, rotted metropolis corrupts. It perverts. It destroys. But the weather’s nice the year round and the women are so beautiful it hurts. And if you’re wealthy, or merely pretend to be, you can enjoy both. Who wouldn’t want to live here?

No industry has aided and abetted narcissism more willfully than the studio system, and this indulgence has put audiences in far off places with names like Topeka, Des Moines and Decatur on the business end of such pernicious “insider” entertainments as THE OSCAR, THE PICKLE and FULL FRONTAL, films that attempt to mask their self-satisfaction with a hastily applied veneer of self-deprecation like a two-dollar whore running ten minutes late for a twelve o’clock tryst. These are films made by artists on either the up- or downswing of their careers; but no matter where they’re headed, their films are suffused with a freshly-climaxed glow of being or having been famous. Hollywood can’t even turn a microscope on itself without applying soft focus.

While a healthy section of the general public is certainly complicit to a degree by virtue of their insatiable hunger for penetration-by-penetration accounts of each breaking celebrity scandal, an audience to whom HBO’s awful-but-guiltily-entertaining witness-to-stardom series ENTOURAGE is undoubtedly tailored, their tawdry appetite enables Hollywood, and all its satellites of salacious reportage, to disseminate, via some occasionally ugly self-inflicted wounds, a false picture of town’s dark side. Even the most damaging tell-all’s, like Julia Phillips’s YOU’LL NEVER EAT LUNCH IN THIS TOWN AGAIN (New Hollywood’s BALL FOUR) or Peter Biskind’s speciously reasoned DOWN AND DIRTY PICTURES, fail to capture that sleazy, beyond humiliating level of thorough professional and personal failure that typically leads to self-delusion or suicide.

If outsiders really want an acrid taste of how awful, how insulting and how uncommitted to quality Hollywood can be, they need look no further than two recently completed documentaries struggling toward release at a theater probably nowhere near you: Xan Cassavetes Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION and Mark Brian Smith and Troy Montana’s OVERNIGHT. Though divergent in their objectives, both pictures drift deeper into the dark heart of the town than most, locating that place where one’s overriding, all-inclusive love for cinema recoils, curdles and dies from prolonged exposure to the narrow sensibilities of the suits, or a “Bar of Dreams” where alcohol-emboldened creative impulse commingles too closely with and is compromised by the antithetical desire for material wealth.

That latter description works as a thumbnail sketch for the meteoric rise and ignominious fall of Troy Duffy, the blowhard bartender who mistook a miraculous script deal for instant moguldom. I remember vividly the day Duffy’s THE BOODOCK SAINTS deal with Miramax broke in the trades; I had just moved back to New York City and was rushing from playhouse to talent agency to production company desperately seeking a Lit Department gig when I saw his triumph, “Miramax Buys a Guy a Bar in ‘Saints’ Deal”, bellowing out from a newsstand copy of DAILY VARIETY. At that point in my life, this was *the* way to arrive: a six-figure deal with Harvey Weinstein, and a VARIETY headline to show the folks back home in Ohio. That day in my journal, I noted Duffy’s success, closing with a faintly scrawled, “Lucky bastard” (“faintly” because I was either sleepy, drunk or both).

While I knew plenty about luck at the time, I couldn’t have possibly worked out the bastard angle, and that’s what makes OVERNIGHT such an invaluable post-mortem on the Duffy Debacle. Granted what appears to be unlimited access by the then-anointed one, Smith and Montana have delivered a shocking, real-life account of ego and marginal talent run amok, while pulling off the unthinkable: “Horrible” Harvey Weinstein comes off as an almost sympathetic figure.

The film opens with Duffy hubristically declaring, “I hope to conquer the world.” Though the world is rarely mastered from Hollywood, and never from a pseudo-Irish pub (unless I’ve a gap in my historical recall), getting a studio honcho to buy the watering hole at which you and your hangers-on imbibe nightly to immobilizing intoxication must feel something like dominion. If Duffy is skilled at anything, it’s celebrating; throughout the first quarter of the film, it’s made hilariously plain that there’s no accomplishment too marginal to warrant a jag. “Let the corruption begin,” is Duffy’s battle cry. But it’s not too long before you start asking, “And when does the *work* begin?”

For Duffy, “work” seems to mean flexing his newly acquired muscle while promising the world to those around him, in particular his band, The Brood, in which Troy’s brother Taylor is also a member. Mostly, though, we see Duffy entertaining celebrity scenesters like Billy Zane, Jerry O’Connell, Vincent D’Onofrio, Matthew Modine and fellow Bostonian Mark Wahlberg (it’s worth noting that a developing plot thread on ENTOURAGE has the movie star played by Adrian Grenier jockeying to star in a gritty indie drama scripted by a guy from his old Queens neighborhood), all presumably fishing for roles in this buzzed-about “PULP FICTION with soul”. When Duffy and his coterie – laughably monikered “The Syndicate” – actually do convene for production meetings, the docket seems stuffed with Duffy enumerating the many reasons why, if everyone listens to him, they’re going to be huge successes.

Then, Miramax stops talking. Meryl Poster won’t take his calls, won’t talk to Duffy’s producer, and Harvey won’t crash through the wall like the Kool-Aid Man to his defense. Suddenly, this comer who wouldn’t stop coming, who was going to reinvent the way the town does business with his mob posturing pals, whose success was assumed manifest by a front-page VARIETY story, becomes acquainted with the diminishment of turnaround. What should be a humbling, however, gets turned into a backyard game of “war” by Duffy, who avers that Miramax will rue the day they strung him along, which leads to one of the film’s most uproarious moments when it’s revealed that his new financier/champion is Hollywood’s Mikey (“He’ll make anything!”), Elie “Franchise Pictures” Samaha.

What should’ve been a charge to tuck tail, lick wounds, and, if there’s any luck left in that unpurchased-by-Harvey bar, live to write-and-direct another day is instead interpreted by Duffy as an open invitation to amp up the invective and browbeat everyone around him into submission or seething contempt. It’s here that OVERNIGHT goes from amusing to angering, particularly as Duffy turns on his sensitive, usually passive brother, Taylor, who, in Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s estimation (the Doobie Brothers vet is brought in to produce their LP), is the driving musical talent behind The Brood. Unbelievably, Duffy growlingly inveighs against their calmly expressed dissatisfaction, barking that they should be gracious for his clearly inept handling of the band. But it’s not like Duffy has surrendered to a deluded mania; he’s still the same guy who was going to “conquer the world” in reel one. It’s simply that he’s arrived at the just destination for a man of his cruel bombast and utter lack of skill. At last, OVERNIGHT reveals itself not as a cautionary tale, because the deluded are too convinced of their own brilliance to heed such warnings, but as a darkly comic comeuppance of a bullying fraud who gets found out and sent to hell, which, in Hollywood, looks an awful lot like Melrose and Huntley.

THE BOONDOCK SAINTS did eventually get made at half of what its budget would’ve been at Miramax, and if you’re prone to restless nights flipping through cable, you’ve probably caught it. It stars Willem Dafoe, Billy Connolly and Norman Reedus, and it’s pretty awful, but so are many of the titles that find their way into heavy rotation on the myriad channels now offered through digital cable (by the way, is there some grassroots email campaign being waged on behalf of 100 GIRLS, and could it possibly cease?). Maybe this tyranny of atrociousness was pay cable’s destiny all along, but, over twenty years ago, there was a dream called Z Channel that took a daringly egalitarian approach to programming, and, as a result, did more to revolutionize the way we watch movies than fifty-two airings of ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN in one week ever could.

The inspiring example of that channel, and its tortured behind-the-scenes story that ends in a shocking murder-suicide, is the focus of Xan Cassavetes’s stirring love letter to movie love, Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, which is one of the most enrapturing films I’ve seen this year. I know that sounds like a curious thing to say in light of programmer Jerry Harvey’s tragic circumstances, but his lifelong mental illness, exacerbated by the suicide of two sisters and a nasty liquor-and-No-Doz habit, is strangely, yet appropriately arbitrary to Cassavetes’s narrative. Instead, she focuses on Harvey’s visionary notion to share with his 80,000 Los Angeles County subscribers every single fucking movie he could get his hands on. High and low, good and bad – Z Channel showed it all, and, in the process, made careers and saved endangered films.

The bulk of Harvey’s backstory is divulged by Cassavetes in the early going, from his advocacy of Sam Peckinpah, whose uncut THE WILD BUNCH Harvey screened at the Beverly Canon Theater, to his short-lived screenwriting career (one-and-out with the little seen Spaghetti Western CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37, directed by Monte Hellman). Harvey finally landed at Z Channel in 1980, and hit the ground programming with an erratic gait, rushing from the esoteric works of marginal American directors Henry Jaglom and Alan Rudolph to soft core Euro erotica starring Laura Antonelli to gritty documentaries like ATTILAS ’74. The channel would run mini-festivals highlighting the lesser known films of Altman (who credits Z Channel with reviving interest in MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER), Nicolas Roeg and the never discussed Stuart Cooper, whose OVERLORD I must see immediately based on the striking clips shown in Cassavetes’s film (it looks like a WWII-themed precursor to Noyce’s NEWSFRONT). Even sophisticated Hollywood audiences were taken aback by the variety of Harvey’s selections, but it was all a part of his search for, as critic and Z Channel compatriot F.X. Feeney puts it, the smart viewer (aka “the uncommon denominator”) through whom they hoped to hook everyone else.

The implications of this strategy, had it succeeded, would’ve been enormous. The film business was, as we all know, at a precarious juncture in the early 1980’s; studios, shaking off the hangover of an experimental (business-wise) decade, were beginning to develop new boilerplates while the cable and VCR revolution loomed ominously on the horizon. The top two national pay cable channels – HBO and Showtime – envisioned lineups of movies with interspersed original programming and sports, but they were clearly aware, and perhaps a bit afraid, of Z Channel, which had all of Hollywood’s subscribers on lockdown. In response, the heavy hitters hatched The Movie Channel and Cinemax, both of which offered slightly more diverse cinematic offerings, but certainly not on the level of Z Channel, which, when it wasn’t introducing Paul Verhoeven to American audiences via TURKISH DELIGHT, was busy becoming the first outlet anywhere to show Michael Cimino’s full, four-hour cut of HEAVEN’S GATE; thus, saving that film’s reputation (though not Cimino’s career).

Long before DVD popularized and cheapened the term, the “Director’s Cut” was Z Channel’s métier; only Harvey was rescuing criminally distorted work like Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (which ran side-by-side with Warner Brothers butchered two-hour travesty) or Bertolucci’s 1900 rather than restoring D.J. Qualls’s bare ass to THE NEW GUY. Harvey also sought out Visconti’s Italian cut of THE LEOPARD, the original German broadcast version of DAS BOOT, and even dared to show all twelve hours of Fassbinder’s BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ uninterrupted. Madness.

Also crucial to Z Channel’s appeal was its monthly station guide, which featured aggressively opinionated reviews from F.X. Feeney that apparently kept him knee deep in “fan mail”. It’s impossible to imagine a station’s own listings featuring nasty reviews of its own programming nowadays, but, then again, it’s impossible, in this pre-Blockbuster Video age, to imagine Z Channel.

Harvey’s mental health, according to Cassavetes’s timeline, deteriorated as the channel struggled to keep pace with its competitors, forcing an uneasy alliance of Bergman and Dodgers games, but there were still a few late breaking triumphs, like a December ‘85 bolstering of SALVADOR that had a hand in getting James Woods a Best Actor nomination. But if Z Channel’s future was to be little more than an Oscar campaign tool, it’s probably best that the channel, in essence, expired with Jerry, whose manic depressiveness sadly led him to also take the life of his second wife. When Feeney gets choked up quoting Goethe in reference to Harvey’s incomprehensible life, it seems fairly clear that Jerry Harvey was not at all a bad guy. He was just a wayward spirit who loved movies, wanted dearly to share that love, and died when the medium through which he expressed that love was co-opted and compromised. Those personally involved in his life will always have much to sift through and mourn, but for those of us who only knew him through his bizarre flights of programming fancy, there’s a dream worth celebrating. It’s the same dream Roger Ebert indulges with his Overlooked Film Festival, or that Harry lives out every December with a packed Alamo Drafthouse, or, on a much smaller scale, the one we all share with our friends and lovers when we expose them to a gem unseen or, in some cases, not properly appreciated (I know I’ll be converting viewers in the name of Coppola’s ONE FROM THE HEART until I draw my last).

It’s in these hours that we transcend the fakeness of Hollywood, and personalize what so many try to desecrate for a paltry percentage or a meaningless credit. It’s then that we realize why we fell in love movies in the first place. And sometimes we all need to paddle into the darkness as a palliative to the smug bullshit peddled by established filmmakers for no other reason than to feast their eyes on their own plasticine “genius”. That’s what these two films do emphatically and unadulterated.

Faithfully submitted,

Mr. Beaks

Well said, man. Can’t wait to see Z CHANNEL, and at some point, I should get around to writing about the fascinating OVERNIGHT as well.

"Moriarty" out.

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