The Z Channel had been gone six years by the time the Los Angeles Film Festival was inaugurated in 1995. But in some ways they are kindred spirits in their presentation of films that enthusiasts may not see anywhere else. It is only appropriate that the two entities are brought together with a screening of Xan Cassavetes' "Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession."
This fascinating documentary spins the parallel tales of the influential L.A. cable channel, which showed an amazing array of films from 1974 to 1989, and its enigmatic driving force, Jerry Harvey, who died in a murder-suicide in 1988.
Featuring interviews with people who worked at Z and were close to Harvey (such as critic F.X. Feeney) and filmmakers Harvey championed such as Robert Altman, Alan Rudolph, Stuart Cooper and Quentin Tarantino, the film perfectly captures the ecstasy of being a movie lover in the city at that time while shedding light on the dark influences that gripped the creative mind behind it.
The film festival, presented by IFP/Los Angeles, opens tonight with "Garden State," written and directed by Zach Braff, star of NBC's "Scrubs." Braff plays a struggling L.A. actor who returns home to New Jersey after his mother passes away. Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard and Ian Holm costar.
A broad range of films highlight LAFF's first weekend, featuring some titles that arrive bearing the critical imprimatur of having played Sundance and Cannes. Others have their world premieres here.
Fresh from its successful screenings at Park City and the French Riviera, Jonathan Caouette's complex cinematic autobiography "Tarnation" makes its L.A. debut in all its iMovie glory. Notably made for $218.32 using the free Apple software standard on Macintosh computers, Caouette's film is as accomplished as it is daring, taking digital filmmaking in a new direction.
In broad outline, the film tells the story of the director's family, particularly his own experiences growing up gay in Houston and his intricate relationship with his mentally ill mother. Utilizing footage he began shooting as a child more than 20 years ago, Caouette, 31, combined Super-8, Betamax, VHS and Hi-8 formats with the Mini-DV he employed to shoot most of the film. The result is a documentary that further presses the bounds of the dysfunctional family genre already stretched by films such as "Capturing the Friedmans."
Caouette expertly mixes the disparate visuals with text narration and an eclectic soundtrack evoking a dreamlike detachment that in some ways leaves you unprepared for some disturbing sequences. Because of its intimate nature, "Tarnation" is not easy to watch at times. Its raw, confessional tone, which echoes the recent trend of literary memoirs, opens a door into the filmmaker's life that reveals more about him than you probably know about even your closest friends.
Battle of the ball
Another strong entry from the documentary competition is Mike Wranovics' "Up for Grabs," a hilarious recounting of the rhubarb over the baseball Barry Bonds slugged for his record-setting 73rd home run in 2001. The fast-paced film turns an inconsequential legal tussle into a riveting satire, shining an unflattering light on our nation's obsession with sports, its propensity for litigious solutions and the media's willingness to provide 15 minutes (or more) of fame to any yahoo who seeks it.
When Bonds launched a first-inning blast off Dodger pitcher Dennis Springer into the right-field arcade in San Francisco's Pac Bell (now SBC) Park, it began a dispute over the ball that -- based on the one Mark McGwire hit to set the previous record of 70 in 1998 -- would be worth in excess of $1 million. The imbroglio pitted Alex Popov, who claims he caught the ball, against Patrick Hayashi, who emerged with it after the melee that erupted in the arcade that October day.
Wranovics uses interviews with the main participants, witnesses to the event, photographs and a fascinating videotape of the battle for the ball, plus footage from the subsequent trial to weave a very entertaining tale of greed and the imprudence of being unable to compromise.
Real-life rock lessons
There is no sign of Jack Black in the documentary "Rock School," in which filmmaker Don Argott visits a real-life "School of Rock" in Philadelphia, but that makes it no less entertaining. Paul Green's School of Rock Music is every bit as interesting as the 2003 Richard Linklater movie, precisely because the students here are real kids between the ages of 9 and 17, bedeviled by all the problems of adolescence while they learn to rock out.