When my dad's co-worker Abe suggested that our family move from our home in Anaheim Hills to Rancho Cucamonga – a town whose only claims to fame, at that point, were that Frank Zappa had lived there and Jack Benny had used its name as a frequent punchline on his TV show – he probably had no idea that he had set into motion a course for my life that has simultaneously cost me substantial sleep and rewarded me with countless personal and creative dividends. Abe, if you're out there, you're the best! The lure of Rancho Cucamonga was that my folks – who, having just welcomed into the family their fourth and final offspring, had outgrown their modest home in Anaheim Hills – could pick up a spacious four-bedroom, 3-1/2 bath upgrade for a song. And Larry Lastrapes loves songs! The only drawbacks were his new back-breaking commute and the fact that there was precious little for a ten-year-old to do in the Inland Empire of the late-70s.
Vineyards and orange groves as far as the eye could see. A smattering of strip malls and tract housing developments. One could count the nearby movie theaters on one hand, and getting to each required at least a ten-minute drive. And that was if you could find someone to take you. Perhaps because it was the first Inland Empire theater to welcome me, or because the first film I saw there was Richard Donner's hotly anticipated Superman: The Movie, my favorite theater was Montclair's Mission Drive-In. I won't go into my love of drive-ins and the despair I feel for their ongoing extinction, that's another post. Suffice it to say, that the Mission was where I saw many movies growing up, but it was as close to an art house as one could get in the Inland Empire. Then cable TV came to the rescue.
I don't remember what we had before. On... SelecTV...? Doesn't matter. I spent more time on the scrambled adult film station, waiting patiently for that rare, but not unprecedented, two minute window when the image would unscramble and stabilize into naughty porn goodness. Then one day, the Z Channel came to town and I discovered that some things are perhaps more important than watching strangers have sex in your television: Movies.
These weren't just any movies, but neither were they stuffy and esoteric. Blockbusters. Classics. Foreign. Mainstream & otherwise. The programming was beyond eclectic and, while I couldn't have articulated this at the time, primarily focused on vision and craftsmanship. The first film I watched on the Z Channel was Billy Wilder's Fedora, which was also my first Billy Wilder film. It's all a fog now (the film has never been available on DVD – UPDATE: You can stream it here.), but it nonetheless made a huge impression. It was the first time I'd ever (legitimately) seen tits on my TV. It was the first time I saw a lot of things, period.
I watched Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles after midnight one New Years Eve, then sixteen more times over the next week. I first saw Kubrick's 2001 – still my favorite film – on a 13" black and white television in my parents' bedroom; I was completely mesmerized. I saw every James Bond film in a weeks long marathon. My dad explained to me while watching The Godfather that I had to listen to every word that was spoken, because they were all important to the plot. Every great film and filmmaker – whether popular or obscure – was represented and championed. The Z Channel magazine discussed film in a way that I hadn't experienced before. Which is to say, at all. It was like Tom Hatten on ALZ 112.
The Z Channel has a great deal to do with why I love cinema as much as I do. It appeared at precisely the right time and place in my life. It taught me how to read a film, that watching a film isn't a passive experience, that a director's intent is woven into every frame. Since I strongly believe that the most important parts of filmmaking can be learned by watching great ones, it effectively taught me how to make them. And that making them was something I really needed to do.
There has since been nothing like it on television. Just about every film they exposed me to I consider essential. While channels like Turner Classic Movies, Sundance and IFC are similar in intent, as good as they are, they are still pale imitations. Each limited in scope and fever. None of which I would describe as an experience. The Z Channel was profoundly alive. Still is.