In 1988, Jerry Harvey shot and killed his wife then some time later turned the gun on himself. He was 38 years old, and had made his living as the head programmer for a Los Angeles cable television station known as the Z Channel, an outfit which didn't last long after Jerry, the life and soul of the place, died, but proved very influential in the way films were seen for decades to come. With so many film channels, DVDs, Blu-rays and digital downloads available now from a wide variety of outlets in many countries, you could trace their inception and respect to the efforts of Harvey.
The director of this documentary, Xan Cassavetes who is the daughter of John Cassavetes, no small influence himself on the movies, originally wanted to make a fictional work but when the money fell through she made this factual effort instead, but that didn't mean there were no stars to be seen, as she managed to secure some very impressive names as talking heads, all of whom felt they owed something - a lot, in some cases - to Harvey's endeavours to bring as wide a variety of films to his audience as possible. So you had viewers of the channel in the eighties interspersed with friends and associates, then the filmmakers who were given vital airtime.
Yet for all the tributes, it was difficult to get away from how Harvey's life ended, which presumably was why Cassavetes placed the depressing conclusion right at the beginning, so that we were under no illusions that not only was this a deeply troubled man, he was a murderer as well. Many would find it impossible to sympathise with someone who had carried out such an act, but crucially the film did not outright condemn him, it was more interested in explaining his actions through the prism of a dreadful childhood which also saw his two siblings take their lives once they reached adulthood. The talking heads who knew him placed the blame squarely on a violent father.
So this was a documentary telling two stories inextricably linked: the movies which Harvey lost himself in, which we can intepret as his way of blanking out the pain in his life as much as they were something to appreciate as great art and/or entertainment, and the tragedy which blighted that existence. Certainly when you hear how much good he did by offering exposure to films that would have gone forgotten without him, you could respect the man's mission to enhance his viewers' lives with their appreciation of a good movie, or even a bad movie that was entertaining or contained some fascinating sequence or theme. It was he who championed the now modern push to watch these productions as their creators intended them.
So without Harvey, according to this, Heaven's Gate would have only been seen in its studio-approved shorter edit, Paul Verhoeven would have never been welcomed to Hollywood, and Once Upon a Time in America would have never been seen in Sergio Leone's preferred version, among many other essential bonuses to enjoying cinema. James Woods had his Oscar nomination for Salvador to thank Harvey for after he showed it shortly after it was in danger of sinking without a trace, and he is interviewed here by way of gratitude, Robert Altman appears to point out his mid-seventies flops like McCabe & Mrs Miller wouldn't have the cult following they have now without him, and so on: you can see the birth of twenty-first century film buffs traced back to the love of the medium displayed here. Yet there's that pall over the film, which includes some very well-chosen clips from Quentin Tarantino's favourite Italian softcore to Harvey's friend Sam Peckinpah's oeuvre, that leaves you with mixed feelings. No matter how he tried, the movies couldn't fix Jerry Harvey's damaged soul.