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Forgotten Silver

Forgotten Silver

1997. New Zealand. Directed by Peter Jackson and Costa Botes. With Sam Neill, Leonard Maltin, Harvey Weinstein

A great summer treat. Forgotten Silver is a fabulous stunt, ingenious and diabolical. Although bogus in all its particulars, it captures a real truth about the mysterious power of early films.

This 70-minute documentary was made for New Zealand TV by Peter Jackson, the director of Heavenly Creatures, and Costa Botes. Both appear in the film. Jackson tells--and re-enacts for the camera--how he discovered a trunk filled with decaying nitrate films in his neighbor's potting shed. The films turned out to be fragments from the extraordinary career of Colin McKenzie, a forgotten genius of the early cinema. Though scratchy, stained, and disjointed, these reels nevertheless prove that McKenzie invented the mechanized camera, the lightweight portable camera, the tracking shot, the close-up, the feature-length film, color stock, and synchronized sound--all before 1910!

Embarking on further research, Jackson learns that McKenzie spent most of the late teens and the 20s shooting a 4-hour epic called Salome, for which he built a massive Biblical-era set in the jungle and shipped in extras by the thousands. Personal tragedy, failed financing, and historical events doomed the film; McKenzie dropped out of sight in the 1930s, and was virtually forgotten until rediscovered by Jackson.

Forgotten Silver is supposedly Jackson's attempt to right the record about McKenzie. Jackson presents some of the astonishing archival footage that he claims to have discovered, including the moment McKenzie filmed himself being shot to death in the Spanish Civil War. He brings in a parade of real-life cinema mavens to certify McKenzie's Salome as a major revelation in film scholarship, comparable to The Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane. He ends with with long scenes from the "restored" film, so that we can see for ourselves. It's terrific.

Forgotten Silver is very funny. It captures with deadly accuracy the style and tone of those documentary tributes to old movies and moviemakers: the talking-head interviews (I especially love the widow who came on the scene late in the filmmaker's life but speaks authoratatively about every aspect of his career), the zoom-ins on stills, the newspaper headlines, the tantalizing scraps of film played over and over. There is also humor in the fabulist details of McKenzie's life (Tahiti, Stalin, pre-Wright Brothers airplane flight, Mafiosi, Gallipoli, Algiers, etc.) and in the excerpts from McKenzie-made shorts featuring "Stan the Man," the most sadistic slapstick comedian of all time. I also love the appearance of Harvey Weinstein, the chairman of Miramax, expressing confidence that McKenzie would be delighted with "the hour that we took out of his movie" to make it more releasable.

It's also spectacular filmmaking. The forgery in Forgotten Silver is so good technically, and so acutely observed, that the word "hoax" seems inadequate. Even aware that McKenzie and his works are complete fabrications, you keep debating the authenticity of each piece of film. How much of this did Jackson and Botes mock up, and how much did they find? Was that amazing bi-plane footage shot in the teens or the nineties? Are those WWI newsreels authentic, or a modern restaging? I recognized a famous piece of early film where John Bunny feeds a dog, but the rest is a mystery. Clever imitations of old-time editing and performance styles, and the addition of scratches and emulsion blisters can effectively disguise the provenance of a piece of film. This is art forgery that hits home, and the fact that it is photographic adds to the complexity.

(I once thought how cool it would be to shoot some pornographic footage in the style of Erich von Stroheim and try to pass it off as one of his notorious lost orgy scenes. I even tried to talk some Hollywood friends into taking on the project, but they pointed out that anybody who could recreate the style of Erich von Stroheim had better things to do. Jackson and Botes have found, I think, the right way to indulge that same impulse.)

Like all successful hoaxes, Forgotten Silver could almost be true. It seems unlikely that a filmmaker who employed thousands would have completely vanished from film history, but on the other hand, lost films constantly unearthed and forgotten directors re-evaluated. Film history lends itself to this sort of thing, with its legendary lost masterpieces and fragmented careers. There is something almost supernatural about the very early films: What they show is so concrete and yet the film itself is so ethereal. Their murky look, with jumps and ellipses and image-blurring stains adds to the mystery, the sense of something there that we can't quite make out. Film history is archeology, and Forgotten Silver shrewdly includes an expedition into the interior to uncover the ruins of the "vast Biblical city" that McKenzie built for Salome. Right after the premiere of the revived Salome, we see the towering set freed from the decades of jungle foliage that have hidden it from view, an enormous folly, a great achievement.

By the way (I don't think this is part of the joke), the plot summary on the back of the video box notes that: "The young genius McKenzie had invented motion picture cameras, color film, synch sound . . . and many other important cinematic techniques before the likes of Griffith and Moliere." And you thought that Tartuffe was the first talkie!

Has anybody else seen Forgotten Silver? Many people, including my brother-in-law, have taken it seriously. I'm in an Internet film discussion group (these are academics!) where a number of people wrote in asking for more information about Colin McKenzie.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein