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Forgotten SilverForgotten Silver is about film and filmmaking in a much more direct way. The subject of the film is Colin McKenzie, a fictitious New Zealand master filmmaker from the silent era, and his lost opus, a grandiose version of Salome. The investigation into the life and work of McKenzie is predicated by the discovery of a trunk full of film cans in the shed of director Peter Jackson's longtime neighbor, and Colin's widow, Hannah McKenzie. Jackson insinuates himself into the body of the film quite cleverly by asserting that the whole thing happened by accident. "Auntie Hannah" wanted him to stop by to take some old films to the national archive. By slyly making himself a key player in Forgotten Silver, Jackson enhances his credibility as a documentarist. These films just fall into his lap, after all, and how can Jackson, as a responsible filmmaker, not do something about it?
Though Jackson, who appears frequently in the film, projects utter believability as a guide into the world of Colin McKenzie, those of us who know something about his career as a filmmaker may suspect right from the start that something is amiss. Jackson is a vastly talented director who specializes in gore-filled humor. His mainstream breakthrough came with the critically acclaimed Heavenly Creatures (1994), but his reputation was built on his incredibly creative, hilarious, and disgusting films Meet the Feebles (1989) and Dead Alive (1993). It would be putting it mildly to say that Jackson has a twisted sense of humor, and his very presence in Forgotten Silver is a key to the m s true nature.
Jackson's presence aside (even Woody Allen made films like Interiors, after all), Forgotten Silver keeps up its central conceit for its duration. How does it accomplish this? The film uses many tactics, all of which refer directly to documentary convention. The illusion of Forgotten Silver depends largely on archival materials. In a film about film, we need to see some footage, and Jackson obviously realizes this. Much of Forgotten Silver is comprised of McKenzie's "lost" films, from the aforementioned "first tracking shot" to the miraculous footage of the Kiwi pilot who took to the air several months before the Wright Brothers to selected scenes from McKenzie's crowning achievement, Salome, to a shot of McKenzie's death, recorded by his own camera while on the battlefield during World War II, and numerous others. Jackson has undertaken a daunting task: the accurate, believable re-creation of many totally different styles of cinema. Of course, he has built into the film a device that allows him to take some liberties with the material: since no one has ever set eyes upon any of these films before, Jackson is free to come up with just about any approach he can dream up, so long as it reasonably resembles accepted film technique at specific points in history. Also, according to the film, McKenzie was such an innovator that he actually designed his own cameras, and even manufactured his own film stock from egg whites and berries.
By making this rather preposterous claim, Jackson has given himself even more leeway: who knows what a film shot on egg/berry stock will look like? The re-created footage has been altered in such a way as to make it look scratchy, stained, and, generally speaking, in bad shape. Not bad enough to prevent us from watching it, of course, as all of McKenzie's films have now been painstakingly restored, but bad enough to look convincingly like old footage. Woody Allen used a similar technique in Zelig. In his case, he actually used cameras and microphones from the Twenties, and I have heard stories (likely apocryphal) of Allen and his assistants throwing the negative down on the floor of the editing room and stomping around on it to "age" it. I do not know the exact process Jackson employed to "age" his film, but he has accomplished it quite convincingly.
Forgotten Silver also relies on archival photographs to recreate the life and work of Colin McKenzie. I already mentioned the example of the photo of the projector connected to the locomotive, and Jackson uses many others, as well, some supposedly taken from the private collection of Auntie Hannah. There are numerous photographs of two young boys working on a farm — supposedly Colin and his brother at the family farm in New Zealand, but they could be just about anyone. The photos, like the footage, serve as incontrovertible historical documents whose very existence lends some historical credence to the story of Colin McKenzie. Of course, since Jackson can tell us whatever he wants to about the photos and the footage, their worth is not necessarily negated, but twisted.
Another similarity the film has with Zelig is its use of interviews with contemporary film industry figures. Jackson has chosen carefully: he gets interviews with a Kiwi actor (Sam Neill), a bigwig in the American studio system (Harvey Weinstein), and a well-known and well-respected popular film critic (Leonard Maltin), all of whom play along with the gag, with Maltin particularly enthusiastic. Every one of them represents a trustworthy, reliable source, and each of them offers up opinions on the filmmaking genius of Colin McKenzie. Jackson peppers the film with other interviews, as well, though none of the subjects are as famous as these three. He interviews various experts on the art of film restoration, people who knew or remembered McKenzie, and, of course, his "widow."
In This Is Spinal Tap, director Rob Reiner reveals the true nature of his film through a rather bad pun. In an interview with the band that occurs early in the film, the band members are trying to recall the name of a music festival at which they once played. "The Isle of .... The Isle of ...," they keep saying, in an effort to jog their memories. Finally, one of them says, "Lucy!" The reference is to the historic rock festivals on the Isle of Man and the Isle of Wight; the "I Love Lucy" remark slips by so quickly that it is difficult to catch on first viewing. The Isle of Lucy obviously does not exist, and this is one instance in which the film slips on the line between the real and the fictional. Forgotten Silver never specifically makes reference, as This Is Spinal Tap does, to a place or event that does not exist in the real world. However, i t does hint at the fact that it is a mock documentary more than once. Each time, though, it provides an effective countermeasure to that hint, leaving the answer to the question, "Could it actually have happened?" a tentative Yes.
The film tells how, for instance, Colin used egg whites to make his film, a process whose existence is validated by one of the many film scholars Jackson interviews. For a novice New Zealand filmmaker working on his own, detached from the world of professional filmmaking, it is not inconceivable (though extremely unlikely) that a film-like substance be made of eggs and a chemical found in locally occurring berries (the chemical is even identified by name by Hannah McKenzie). No sooner have we learned about the "albumen process" than we are shown a newspaper clipping about the theft of 2000 dozen eggs, and then a photograph of innumerable buckets filled with innumerable eggs. (This photograph, by itself, depicts nothing more than a large number of eggs in one place; it draws no specific, explicit connection to McKenzie.) Jackson first presents us with a semi-plausible concept, which is validated by a film restoration expert, and then proceeds to make it totally ludicrous by having us conceive of the sheer number of eggs required for such an undertaking. First he sets us up, then he brings us down. The result is that we start to have our doubts about the veracity of the documentary.
In another instance, Jackson does the reverse: he sets us up with an inherently ludicrous situation, and then subverts it by injecting a bit of real-life pathos. The situation, which is too convoluted to explain fully, is that McKenzie is under pressure from both the Mafia and a Communist political organization to finish his Biblical epic, Salome. McKenzie, almost finished with principal photography, is into both of these groups for a great deal of money, and he decides to work the crew nonstop for three days until they finally complete this trouble-plagued production. Though the situation of a filmmaker attempting to complete a film under intense pressure is nothing unfamiliar, the Mafia/Communist angle makes the whole thing rather absurd. The confluence of all these crazy circumstances is enough to make anyone stop believing the film's central conceit.
But then Jackson does something unusual: The narrator tells us that McKenzie's first wife, Maybelle, the star of the picture, who is pregnant and physically exhausted, collapses after the three solid days of rigorous work. With one shot remaining to be filmed, the lead actress miscarries and dies on the set. We see a still photograph of a despondent Colin, and we hear Hannah's voice say, "Colin was torn between guilt and despair. Guilt over Maybelle, and despair because he'd finished the film, but at what a cost."
Moments of genuine tragedy such as this one are not normally found in mock documentaries, and it undercuts the rather silly tone of the scene up to that point. This is not to say that tragic events are believable and silly ones are not, but the miscarriage and death of McKenzie's wife does hit the viewer hard, precisely because it is so unexpected. We are, in a way, shocked back into the real world of deaths and despondency, after dwelling for so long in the world of egg/berry film and ruthless Mafiosi. Maybelle's death parallels Shelby Leverington's character's rape in No Lies: a dire event that strengthens the central conceit of the film.
Jackson anticipates the question, "Could it actually have happened?" by building into the film a second narrative strain. The principal narrative strain of the film is the rediscovery of the life and work of Colin McKenzie. The secondary strain, of which Jackson is an integral part, is the unearthing (literally) of the vast, extravagant, long-lost set for McKenzie's film of Salome. Jackson leads a five-man expedition deep into the heart of the New Zealand forest to uncover an Intolerance-like set that has never been seen by modern eyes. Jackson cuts back and forth between the documentary that reveals the life of McKenzie and the expedition that reveals the long-hidden set. We see them chopping down all manner of plant life and are there to witness the discovery of huge columns, marble staircases, and a vast, underground storeroom where Salome's props, as well as the canisters containing the film itself, have been buried for 70 years.
We can actually see, on film, some of the large, ornate buildings that once comprised part of the set of Salome. Seeing such palpable objects as these — not only here but in the lengthy "footage" from Salome itself — lends Forgotten Silver yet another note of credibility.
Finally, mention must be made of the credits. In Zelig and This Is Spinal Tap, not to mention No Lies, the closing credits reveal, once and for all, that the whole film has been a hoax. We see the names of the actors who played the members of Spinal Tap, the numerous supporting roles in Zelig, and the principal actors in No Lies. In Forgotten Silver, the illusion is maintained, to the point where Hannah McKenzie is thanked in the credits. The credits that help to maintain the film's central conceit are worth listing: Archive Stills Restoration, Genealogical Research, Archaeological Advisers, Military Advisers, Archive Film Restoration. Some even get more specific: The Colin McKenzie Trust is among those thanked for archival footage, Hannah McKenzie is thanked for her archival stills, and the New Zealand Film Commission itself is thanked "for supporting the restoration of `Salome.'" Could this actually have happened? The credits say that it did. Jackson even resists the Airplane-like temptation to fill in the fictitious positions with goofy-sounding names; every last one sounds genuine. Significantly, there is no cast list. Though the actors who appeared in Forgotten Silver may very well be mentioned in the credits' good-sized "thanks to" section, they are not referred to directly as actors.
Why did Jackson choose the mock documentary as a format for telling the story of Colin McKenzie? He could have done it, with many more opportunities for his characteristic gore-filled bravado, in the form of a traditional fictional narrative film. What was it about mock documentary form that meshed with Forgotten Silver's subject matter?
Like Man Bites Dog, the subject matter of Forgotten Silver is concerned with both the real and the fictional. The real, in this case, is the backdrop of film history against which McKenzie's story is told. According to the film, McKenzie anticipated just about every major trend of filmmaking's early period—the tracking shot, color, sound, the feature-length film — significantly before those achievements were actually realized in the real world. The fictional is, obviously, the story of McKenzie and his films. By setting the fictitious career of McKenzie against the actual background of film history, Jackson is questioning the historiography of film itself. Can we be certain that film history really progressed as the books say it did? But, more than that, can we believe film's accuracy as a device for recording history? Forgotten Silver is a perfect example of form and function combining to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The mock documentary, a form whose nature consists of taking filmic conventions and manipulating them in such a way as to present an "alternate truth," is perfectly suited to the subject matter of Forgotten Silver: a fictional filmmaker whose images present a challenge to the veracity not only of film history, but of the filmed image itself. Just as Colin McKenzie's films are false, so is Peter Jackson's.

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Copyright © Ethan de Seife, author of Cultographies: This is Spinal Tap. Reprinted with permission.

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