Saturday, March 31, 2007

Random Movie Report #23: Forgotten Silver

I'm classing this piece on FORGOTTEN SILVER as a movie review, even though it's not quite a movie; coming in at just under an hour, it was originally aired on New Zealand television as part of a drama anthology series. The reason for this is very simple: I can't think of a better category for it. (Though note the TV tag.) Presented as a documentary on the life and work of NZ filmmaking pioneer Colin McKenzie, the film managed to fool a great many viewers, whose swellings of patriotic pride turned to outrage when the hoax was revealed.

Peter Jackson (the co-director) more-or-less hosts as himself, recounting how, collecting film cans he thought would be home movies from an elderly neighbor named Hannah McKenzie, he came across the lost work of her husband Colin, a pioneer in the silent era of film. The "restored" work reveals Colin McKenzie to have been first with tracking shots, synch sound, and color, all well in advance of their "official" invention. Mackenzie's life was one of ups and downs; his sound feature was filmed in Chinese before the advent of subtitles, and his color test reel ended up with footage of topless Tahitian girls, getting him and brother Brooke McKenzie booked on obscenity charges when they showed the test to investors. Finally, Colin moved from experimentation to narrative cinema, leading to the filming of the great lost epic SALOME; it would become the scene of personal triumph and tragedy.

Knowing ahead of time that the documentary is a fake, one can spot a few dead giveaways; the date on a film reel showing the test flight of (real) Kiwi aviator Charles Pearce is extrapolated from a newspaper using the kind of ultra-advanced digital enhancement that only works in movies, and the description of how Colin made his own film stock using plants for cellulose and eggs for emulsion stretches credibility. And of course, the "first with everything" claim gets a little suspicious. But despite many moments of humor, the whole thing is played straight enough that you can see how people were caught unawares (and indeed, there's no disclaimer even in the end credits.) Particularly impressive is how the films themselves are faked- the footage is much more elaborately degraded than the usual "thin scratches" approach, as much of it was actually dragged across the floor of the basement of the film lab (the other floors were too clean), and the period detail is authentic enough. Enough actual history and facts about early film are woven in to up the plausibility factor, as are appearances by Harvey Weinstein, Leonard Matlin, and Sam Neill.

This works in favor of the movie's entertainment value as well; I personally am a fan of metafiction, and a believable chronicle of the silent era is just the sort of thing that sparks the imagination. Much of the film is played for laughs, a highlight being the time McKenzie spends filming the "Stan the Man" series of slapstick comedies, in which the title comedian (Peter Corrigan) goes up to actual random bystanders in New Zealand cities and physically abuses them, in a wonderfully twisted take on the actual "community comedies" of the time. But there is tragedy and heartbreak, and a certain suspense as Colin rushes to complete his masterpiece. There's also action in the present as Jackson in others set off in search of the massive Biblical city McKenzie built for his epic somewhere in the New Zealand wilds. In the end it's fairly touching, and McKenzie is given the dignity befitting a visionary.

FORGOTTEN SILVER starts off cute and ends up being more compelling and dramatic than one expects. It efficiently uses the documentary format to tell a story with a number of fascinating twists, not giving the game away but working as more than just a practical joke. It's a fun curiosity and a good evening's viewing.

Written and Directed by Costa Botes and Peter Jackson

Grade: A-

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