Forgotten Silver and Peter Jackson’s Mockumentary Roots

Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary Get Back debuts over Thanksgiving weekend. Working with archival footage that didn’t make the cut for the Beatles’ 1971 documentary Let It Be, Jackson complicates the dour narrative surrounding the Fab Four’s breakup by showing the creativity, the artistic growth spurts, and the moments of joy that went into recording the band’s final album. 

While Jackson joins his colleagues Todd Haynes and Edgar Wright as the 2021 class of first-time rockumentary filmmakers, Get Back—his second documentary after the 2018 feature They Shall Not Grow Old—isn’t the first time he’s engaged with the format. In his 1995 film Forgotten Silver, the director weaves a tall tale about a surprisingly influential figure in cinematic history, one whose early works were shot and later discovered in New Zealand. How could this earlier film, about a mythic innovator in a myth-making medium, predict Jackson’s work on Get Back

Forgotten Silver opens with Peter Jackson directly addressing the audience, describing a trunk full of film reels that his neighbor Hannah found in a garden shed. At the time, Jackson was regarded as a filmmaker’s filmmaker among American audiences. His depictions of how different characters watch movies and his knowing use of cinematic tropes and genre conventions—as well as the popularity and critical acclaim of his 1994 film Heavenly Creatures—made him a trustworthy authority figure and gave Forgotten Silver an air of plausibility. When he says that the previously unknown director Colin McKenzie is about to “join the ranks of the great film pioneers,” audiences are more likely to believe him. 

After a few excerpts from interviews with film preservation archivists—who compare McKenzie’s work to Orson Welles—Forgotten Silver shows us the early life and upbringing of this heretofore obscure figure. While film historians make lofty claims about McKenzie’s talent and sense of prescience, Jackson and co-writer Costa Botes plant specific details firmly enough in cinema history to make McKenzie’s innovations seem somewhat plausible. Jackson then undercuts these claims by taking them to their logical extreme. In one memorable early sequence, narrator Jeffrey Thomas describes a bicycle-powered camera that McKenzie invented at the age of 12. Given the hand-cranked technology of early cinema and the boredom McKenzie was experiencing in rural New Zealand, it’s possible—if far-fetched—that one could create a bicycle-cranked camera. Jackson one-ups this in the next shot, which shows the steam train-powered projector McKenzie is claimed to have invented. 

The excerpts we see from McKenzie’s filmography also strike a balance between somewhat plausible and exaggerated for comic effect. The footage he shot with the bicycle camera has the overexposed, out-of-focus look and mottled emulsion consistent with the films the Lumiere brothers made at the start of the 20th century. Jackson and Botes only glancingly depict the ways New Zealand audiences viewed films, acknowledging that “even the poorest members of society had some leisure time, and most of them chose to spend it at the pictures” but not expanding on which directors or movies may have influenced McKenzie’s films. While McKenzie is retroactively credited with making the first sound film and creating color film stock, the visual language of the films he made were consistent with what D.W. Griffith was directing in America at the same time; the excerpts we see from McKenzie’s 1908 epic The Warrior Season look like a spoof of Griffith’s Broken Blossoms. (That Jackson didn’t create a new visual vocabulary for McKenzie seems like a missed opportunity.) 

Forgotten Silver is in conversation with the state of film in both 1995 and 1895. The film was released in the centenary year of the Lumiere Brothers’ first screening, at a time when their straightforward, proto-documentary style would have been fresh in mind for Forgotten Silver’s core audience of cineastes. Jackson nailed the post-Lumiere look of McKenzie’s work, but he capably sent up mid-90s documentaries as well. The film’s sober tone and its use of static talking-head shots from unknown actors is consistent with something you’d see during pledge week on PBS. That tone contrasts with some of the more outlandish claims of its subjects, making them especially funny. In early scenes, Jackson and editor Michael J. Horton zoom out of still photographs in the style of Ken Burns’ documentaries, but the visual punchlines of their shots has a greater comedic payoff than anything in The Civil War

Jackson’s love of and irreverence towards cinematic history parallels the Beatles’ playful attitude towards the history of popular music. While the trappings of Forgotten Silver are quite different from those of Get Back, his willingness to challenge the narrative around some of our most cherished institutions should bring a fresher perspective on the Beatles’ final days. If you want to whet your appetite before viewing Get Back, or if the series left you wanting more, you might want to check out Forgotten Silver.

Chelsea Spear is returning to arts writing after spending a few years correcting other people’s grammar. Her byline has appeared at the Brattle Theatre’s Film Notes blog and in the pages of The Gay & Lesbian Review. She lives in Boston.

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