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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
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 periodthe 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.