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Savant Review:

Forgotten Silver

Forgotten Silver
First Run Features
1996 / Color / 1:37 flat / 53 m. /
Starring Peter Jackson, Johnny Morris, Costa Botes, Harvey Weinstein, Leonard Maltin, Sam Neill, Marguerite Hurst, John O'Shea, Lindsay Shelton, Beatrice Ashton, Thomas Robins, Sarah McLeod, Peter Corrigan, Richard Shirtcliffe, Jeffrey Thomas
Cinematography Alun Bollinger, Gerry Vasbenter
Production Designer John Girdlestone
Film Editors Eric De Beus, D. Michael Horton
Original Music David Donaldson, Steve Roche, Janet Roddick
Produced by Peter Jackson, Sue Rogers, Jamie Selkirk
Written and Directed by Costa Botes and Peter Jackson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

One of the best film pranks ever perpetrated on the public (besides Michael Bay), this New Zealand film is the pinnacle of fake documentaries, covering the mysterious life and career of the little-known Kiwi film pioneer Colin McKenzie. Made in the reverently impeccable Kevin Brownlow style, this is a wink-wink fun movie that is neither a critical satire nor a snide razz at anything. Instead, it walks a perfect tightrope between silliness, and a counterfeit job so good that it almost seems real.


Now forgotten and obscure, turn-of-the century New Zealand filmmaker Colin McKenzie (Thomas Robins) not only built his own cameras and manufactured his own film (from hen's eggs) but pioneered technical advances like color and sound long before D.W. Griffith took all the credit. McKenzie would have conquered the cinema world had it not been for a plague of unforseen events that repeatedly hampered his progress. Working with Kiwi silent comedian Stan the Man (Peter Corrigan), who had a habit of springing unwelcome slapstick on unsuspecting 'co-stars', Colin raised enough money between wars and romantic disasters to complete the filming of his silent masterpiece, . But more ironic mishaps let to its never being edited. Over 60 years later, filmmakers Peter Jackson and Costa Botes have uncovered the full story of this genius, including the unearthing of the set of 'Salome's lost city,' constructed in a remote corner of Western New Zealand.

Fans of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring will be in for a surprise when they dig into the earlier career of Peter Jackson - along with his weird fantasies and sometimes gross-out horrors, they'll find this delightful shaggy dog movie made for New Zealand television, and sprung on the telly viewers of that country in a prank every bit as effective as Orson Welles' radio play of War of the Worlds. Using every trick at their disposal, for what must have been a minimal budget, Jackson and partner Costa Botes created a fully-realized hour-long docu on a totally nonexistent person. We see the filmmakers discovering hidden caches of McKenzie films, and are treated to the expected photo montages of his early life and associations. The actual films almost look too authentic to be fakes, but they are, silent snippets of cinema with scratches, high contrast fluctuations from over-duping, and mottled damage from nitrate decomposition.

Anyone familiar with Kevin Brownlow docus will recognize the style immediately - interviews with prominent experts, photo montages, and dramatic clips from the filmmaker's work, presented with dramatic emphasis and passionate narration. It's completely believable (unlike Welles' radio show) that all but the most discerning viewers would be hoodwinked by this concoction. Jackson and Botes' clever conception of a silent comedian might be an intentional elbow-jab to those taken in by the docu - Stan the Man is a guerilla comedian who pulls pranks on unknowing citizens candid-camera style, pushing them into ponds and slapping pies in their faces. Forgotten Silver is nowhere near as mean-spirited; never exactly fall-down funny, the real reaction is flabbergasted awe at the recreations of fairly large-scale, Griffith-like silent movie scenes. They look pretty darn real, very, very credible!

Weaving real historical events into McKenzie's story helps this feeling of docu reality. WW1, the stock market crash, and The Spanish Civil War end up being important to the 'plot.' Being fair, the filmmakers put their silliest material up front, as with the revelation that Colin McKenzie's perfected 1908 sound-on-film process failed because he demonstrated it with an entire feature spoken in the Chinese language, thereby alienating audiences. Or that his ravishingly successful color system (made possible by a certain berry from Tahiti) was abandoned after topless Tahitian natives that found their way into the test footage scandalized New Zealand audiences and forced McKenzie into retreat. Using authentic-looking faked exploration footage, the discovery of the lost city of Salome by our intrepid heroes Jackson and Botes is totally convincing.

Famous interviewees Leonard Maltin, Sam Neill and Harvey Weinstein are used beautifully to lend the show a cachet of authenticity. In a great in-joke, Miramax chief Weinstein offhandedly admits to chopping an hour out of the restored Salome before distribution. Take his word for it, if McKenzie were around, he'd surely approve.

Forgotten Silver has no major points to make besides its own spirit of fun. But perhaps there is the unstated message that we should take all docus with a grain of salt. If it's this easy to fake footage like this, then how much of what we see on the news is for real?  1

First Run Features' DVD of Forgotten Silver is a very thoughtful package of what might have been a slight offering. The film itself even sports faked end titles (crediting Sovofilm with the 'Russian' footage, for instance) so there's a lot that can use explaining. The commentary track does a thorough critique of the whole show, that's like going over a magic trick with the magician confiding all; it's fun to hear that Colin McKenzie's family photos came from the directors' family albums, etc. A half-hour docu has Jackson and Botes fessing up to all of their illusions, showing the 16mm original color footage that provided the basis for the silent b&w McKenzie films, and the public buildings in downtown Wellington that were dressed to convincingly portray the lost city in the middle of a jungle. There are a lot more effects involved in this show than is immediately apparent, with a lot of digital mattes by Jackson's associates who not long after began working on Fellowship of the Ring.

The only extra that isn't all that good are a few limp interview outtakes. The docu covers very well the outraged response, in letters and newspaper editorials, from some of the Kiwi audience offended by broadcast of this show without explanation; some apparently bought it all the way and wanted recognition for the unknown McKenzie, only to be humiliated when the prank was revealed.

This is all fun because the filmmakers aren't smug about their own cleverness. The enterprise has goodwill and high spirits written all over it. A typical example of a Savant title that begs to be obscure but deserves wider exhibition, Forgotten Silver will mainly thrill people who can appreciate the twisted ingenuity that went into its making.

In a couple of months, First Run Features is expanding its catalog of offbeat shows by putting out a pair of Radley Metzger's notoriou but frequently praised softcore melodramas from the late '60s .... Savant's braved the fringes of taste and sex before with things like Nude on the Moon and The Blind Beast; this company's established a feeling of trust that makes we want to try giving them a spin! Any objections to DVD Savant going partially adult for a review or two? I promise not to wear a raincoat while watching them.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Forgotten Silver rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary, docu, outtakes.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: January 14, 2002


1. It irks Savant to no end to watch cable and network news coverage that presents 1 or 2-day old stories with no distinction from 'new' material, or recycles footage with the implication that it's fresh. I'm thinking specifically of the line of Taliban prisoners seen in green night-vision, that I've seen every day in news stories for weeks, as if it were brand new.

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