Film Studies: Dark, depressive, volatile - the film buff who lost the plot

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The Independent Culture

It's natural enough that film-makers like to celebrate practitioners in their own world - whether they regard that world as an art form, a tricky business or a remorseless jungle. But then sometimes, something happens in film that gives you pause. Maybe the obsession is too great and too dark. Maybe it beckons too powerfully to the self-destructive, or the fantasist. Maybe the life-long pursuit needs to be reconsidered. Not that a few contrary examples will stop those so inclined from throwing themselves into film. People go into film as if it is a consuming country. Still, it is difficult to forget or explain away the story of Jerry Harvey, or his odd links to Sam Peckinpah.

And now, by chance, the simultaneous appearance of two remarkable and very moving documentaries compels us to examine those links. Sooner or later, I hope, some venue will play these two films together - what a night they would have made on the old Z channel in Los Angeles. The films are Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade (directed by Tom Thurman) and Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (directed by Xan Cassavetes). They are as good as, or better than, most fiction films playing now.

Jerry Harvey was from Bakersfield, an ugly city in California on the edge of the desert. He was the son of a judge who had the reputation for being a drunk and a sadist with a death-penalty habit. The mother was a living monotone who never complained. Jerry went away to UCLA, and after graduating in the very exciting Seventies, he became programmer at the Beverly Canon movie theatre in Los Angeles. One of his triumphs there was to play the original, uncut version of Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch on a night when Peckinpah himself delivered the precious print. It was the start of a close friendship, "like family".

Jerry lived through the suicide of one sister and the disappearance of another. He was dark, depressive, volatile, but enormously creative and totally devoted to film. He got a job with the Z channel, a cable system that specialised in showing uncut, uninterrupted movies, with erudite programme notes; great films from all over the world. In the days before video, the Z channel was a life-enhancing service in LA and Jerry Harvey was the essential programming force there.

He took delight in finding the uncut versions of classics, or the versions that directors that been compelled to give up in the face of business interests: he showed the five-hour-plus print of Bertolucci's 1900; when the scandal came down on Heaven's Gate, Jerry insisted on showing Michael Cimino's full-length cut; he did the same for Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, for Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Leopard, and, of course, those Peckinpah films that the industry had hacked up - which is to say most of them, but especially The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

A first marriage ended in divorce. Then Jerry married a second time - to Derry Rudolph, a woman who was beloved by many people. But Derry was asking Jerry to have children, after an agreement that they would stay childless. And the Z channel was faltering. Other cable stations, like HBO, had arrived to compete with it, and Z was forced to merge with a sports channel. Jerry was 39, and he may have reckoned he was a failure; he may have been one of those who felt the great years of the cinema were coming to a close; it may have been a simple - and impossibly complex - case of old family demons. He had been drinking and even friends said he was dangerous when drunk. At any event, one day in 1988, using a handgun given him by Peckinpah, Jerry shot and killed Derry and then, an hour later, did the same service on himself.

The Xan Cassavetes documentary agonises over this terrible action, and cannot explain it: the first wife talks, a girlfriend, and many close friends, and some are still reduced to tears, more than 15 years later. No one seeks to blame Peckinpah: to give a friend a gun is a very remote kind of culpability. It was likely far more profound an influence that Peckinpah had given Jerry - and all of us: his own movies, with their helpless romance of death and glory as the only decent ways out as monstrous forces of money and compromise begin to track down the lonely, creative spirits.

Peckinpah had his own demons - liquor, cocaine and a terrible habit of violence towards women. At the same time, he was and is one of the American movie directors most touched by the raw beauty of his country and most devastated by all the plots to fence it off and package it. The Wild Bunch is set on the Mexican-American border in the early years of the 20th century, yet it is a parable of wild, dangerous men trying to live at liberty as best they can. It is also, like all of Peckinpah, an attempt to define a manly code of violence in which no one is ever to be trusted except one's closest associates - but especially not women.

In his own time, Peckinpah ran into trouble as a commercial film-maker because his films were extremely violent, and because the violence was more poetic than rebuked; because the films were long, hostile to society and progress and the ways of women and family; and, deep down, because they believed that little mattered except the self-destructive passion of the men.

They are also, the best of them, among the most beautiful films ever made in America, and I mean beauty not just in terms of the slow-motion depiction of death rolls and blood spurts, but because of narrative rhythm, ironic fatalism and an intense identification with a kind of lonely courage.

No one will ever know why Jerry Harvey acted as he did that night, just as no one will know more than Jerry's own admission that the films of Peckinpah meant as much to him as any he'd ever seen. Thurman's film is as wary of its own hero as Xan Cassavetes is of ever excusing what Jerry Harvey did.

But when you put the two films together, it is possible to extrapolate this uneasy climate - that there are unhappy, unsettled souls, much moved by the romance of film, and much endangered by it. And sometimes, who knows, they may come to a dire point where the drunken story on the screen takes over the numb characters in life.

This is not a subject film people often touch on. As I said, they prefer that the world thinks well of the culture of the movies and the enlightenment that flows from it. So be it. But films are a huge fantasy, too, especially beguiling for those who live near the edge of gloom or self-destruction.

You never know how far is too far until you've made that journey. You never quite realise that film can be an empire that excludes you from real life until you look around in the necessary darkness and realise that the exits have gone.