Salute Your Shorts: Peter Jackson’s “Forgotten Silver”

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Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.

Although most of America was introduced to that somewhat odd niche of filmmaking known as mockumentaries through This is Spinal Tap, it’s been around since 1933 when Luis Bunuel went ahead and ripped apart the newly born genre of documentaries with “Land Without Bread.” Unfortunately for Bunuel, his attempt at parody went largely unnoticed to the point where the film is frequently misattributed as an actual documentary, which probably explains why it went without imitation for so long. It really took until the late ’60s, with parodies by Monty Python and Woody Allen, for the genre to get kickstarted, and even so, it’s always been somewhat ghettoized, regardless of how well Citizen Kane showed fake-documentary elements could be used in feature films.

The whole piece comes together with an economy of storytelling that Jackson, for better or worse, seems to have left behind. “Forgotten Silver” remains a bit of an oddity for Jackson and unfortunately is largely unavailable here in the states. But there are some Region 1 versions of the movie out there and they’re well worth the purchase.

Following Spinal Tap, though, there’s been a burst of them—and not all of them were made by Christopher Guest. Only most. One of the oddest by far is also one of the few short films made by Peter Jackson, released only on New Zealand television in 1995. It’s not just that the film is something at the time very unexpected for a director following his first Academy Award nomination, it’s that the film’s lovingly made faux-documentary tribute to film history has never been done before, period. Jackson’s “Forgotten Silver” is the film that somewhere out there Peter Bogdanovich is cursing himself for not having thought up.

At the time “Forgotten Silver” was released, Jackson, who co-directed and co-wrote the film with actual-documentary filmmaker Costa Botes, already had a number of movies to his name, but nothing remotely like this. Two of his works were over-the-top splatter-horror comedies that Jackson cut his teeth on, one of his films was the muppet-like cult feature Meet the Feebles, and most recently he had directed the prestigious and groundbreaking Heavenly Creatures. A TV-length documentary, fake or not, didn’t seem to be on the horizon, but these early works already showed off Jackson’s impressive ability of film mimicry and a somewhat warped, uncompromising sense of humor.

Less well-known at the time was Jackson’s love and knowledge of classical filmmaking. Following his surprisingly faithful King Kong re-make and the homage-filled Lord of the Rings trilogy, this is much easier to spot, but in 1995 Jackson seemed more aligned with Roger Corman (and quite obviously Sam Raimi) than the film brats of the previous generation. Chiefly characterized by how much they were able to achieve with so little, Jackson’s films tended towards unpolished, frenetic lunacy. That there’s often precise compositions and an obsessive dedication to rhythmic editing was easily overlooked.

That being said, Jackson probably had more in common with the generation of American filmmakers who arrived on the scene several years after him, the video store generation. His first film, “The Valley,” was an homage to Ray Harryhausen films. Soon after this early success, the only of his student shorts to ever be distributed, he continued with his series of homage rip-offs, “Coldfinger” obviously deriving from James Bond, and “Curse of the Gravewalker,” deriving from Hammer horror films, itself staring a vampire leader named Murnau in reference to the director of Nosferatu. Jackson is ultimately a film nut, and “Forgotten Silver” gave him the opportunity of his dreams: to become a part of the medium’s history. Or at least to pretend he was.

The set-up is simple but ingenius. Jackson, tipped off by his neighbor, investigates some old, discarded films. A fan of New Zealand culture, he plans on taking them to the country’s film archive but after viewing what he has in hand there he sees something more incredible than he could have imagined: the lost films of fabled New Zealand director Colin McKenzie. McKenzie was, as he explains, a pioneering director whose works were long thought destroyed, and due to this the man’s legacy in film history had been lost. It turns out, McKenzie in fact pioneered the tracking shot and close-up, not to mention creating the first sound and color films years, sometimes decades, before previously thought. Jackson and Botes explain exactly how monumentally these change the face of film history as we know it and head off in search of McKenzie’s masterpiece, an adaptation of Salome nearly completed before its torturous shooting schedule killed his wife (and unborn child).

It’s a remarkable tale that shows both genuine scholarship and fine documentary work. It’s also, of course, completely and totally fake. Enlisting the help of film historian/critic Leonard Maltin and distributor/sleazeball Harvey Weinstein, Jackson and Botes managed to convincingly convey that they may have made the discovery of a century. The pair also had a journalist friend write up the film in the New Zealand Listener before the broadcast in order to create publicity. Like Orson Welles many decades before them, Jackson and Botes were soon called to explain themselves to the gullible and humorless.

Ultimately, though, the hoopla that surrounded the movie is a lot less interesting than the film itself. Its higlights are the impressively, almost mind-bogglingly perfect recreations of old movie styles. The technique of creating these old films has lost some of its charm, but there’s a difference between, say, what appears in Forrest Gump and what Jackson does. Jackson’s turn-of-the-19th-century-style shorts are done with a loving level of accuracy that’s ultimately what made the entire film so believable. These perfectly made mini-short films contrast with the sheer insanity of the explanations of McKenzie’s steam-powered projector and film emulsion manufactured from eggs. Together the film manages to seem reverent of both film history and the myth of New Zealand as a nation of unacknowledged trailblazers and be incredibly irreverent. Jackson and Botes somehow manage to have it both ways.

The movie’s highlight by far is Jackson, by way of McKenzie, giving a 1920s version of Salome. Reminiscent of Guy Maddin but in some ways surpassing the Canadian director’s style, Jackson offers up the biblical story as a parable for McKenzie himself, with both ending with the death of the director’s wife. It’s stunning and truly looks like a lost masterpiece from the era. More than that, it’s good filmmaking for any time. The short isn’t a parody like some of the earlier ones, it’s really a film that uses all the tools of a bygone era to do something extraordinary.

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