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Not Soon 'Forgotten'

New Zealanders Peter Jackson and Costa Botes hit a sore spot with their satire about early film.

January 15, 1998|STEVEN SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some names stand tall in the pantheon of cinema greats. And some get dumped in the dust heap of time.

Take Colin McKenzie, the New Zealand pioneer who made the first feature and talkie, invented color film, the close-up and the tracking shot, photographed the world's first plane flight and spent two decades on an epic film of "Salome" that rivals Griffith's "Intolerance" in scope.

At least it would have, if Colin McKenzie had ever existed.

McKenzie is the satiric creation of directors Peter Jackson ("Heavenly Creatures") and fellow New Zealander Costa Botes. Their one-hour 1995 mock-documentary, "Forgotten Silver," mixes real archival footage, faked film and straight-faced testimonials from actor Sam Neill, film critic Leonard Maltin and Miramax co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein to chronicle the brilliant but ill-starred career of the fictional McKenzie.

The movie, which plays for one week in Los Angeles at the Nuart beginning Friday, has earned rave reviews in international runs--but proved an unexpected mine of controversy in New Zealand, where it was made for television.

Minutes after its world premiere on New Zealand TV, co-director Botes recalls, "I was rung by a distinguished professor of education, congratulating me and Peter on the most wonderful research he'd ever encountered. It was three minutes before I realized he was serious, and I was too embarrassed to inform him it was a total fiction!

"The next day, talk radio was just buzzing with it. People were so angry that we'd hoodwinked them. I have a letter that's one sentence long: 'Peter Jackson and his "Forgotten Silver" conspirators should be shot.' It just shows that if you throw in a couple of experts and tell people the moon is made of cheese, they'll believe it."

It's easy to see why New Zealanders were crushed to learn McKenzie was as imaginary as Orson Welles' invading Martians: McKenzie's exploits, if real, would have made Australia's island neighbor the center of cinema history.

"We wanted to convey the passion of creativity in adverse circumstances," Botes explains. "In some ways, it was autobiographical--no one gets rich for their art in New Zealand, and we drew on many case studies."

Adds Jackson, "We wanted to tell a story that had a poignancy and an emotional involvement for the audience, regardless of whether it was true or not."

As "Forgotten Silver's" ingeniously faked footage shows, McKenzie's creative passion is met with scorn and worse in his lifetime. His innovative recipe for film stock--flax and egg whites--leads to his arrest for stealing 2,000 dozen eggs, intended to create the world's first feature.

His test of color film in Tahiti leads to more prison time, when bare-breasted locals wander into the shot and he's arrested in New York for exhibiting smut (the all-male jury, we're informed by a deadpan voice-over, viewed the film repeatedly during its 37-hour deliberation).

And his filming of (real-life) aviator Richard Pearse's first flight--nine months before the Wright brothers, we're told--ends disastrously when McKenzie's camera causes Pearse to turn the crude plane and crash. Notes Jackson, "It's possibly true that Pearse flew before the Wright brothers. The saddest call we got was from an old lady, the niece of Richard Pearse. She said, 'My family is so grateful to you for vindicating my uncle. He'll now have achieved his place in the history of aviation.' "

Botes and Jackson began developing the idea in the early 1990s, embellishing McKenzie's story with gags and plot twists that carry their hero from simple sheep farmer to cameraman in the Spanish Civil War.

Much of the tale concerns the epic project that leads to his personal and professional downfall: a three-hour film of "Salome," for which the director builds a re-creation of Jerusalem the size of seven football fields in the bush country of New Zealand. (Jackson and team are shown rediscovering this "lost city"; as a result, the director says, "our office was inundated with calls from people who wanted maps to visit it.")

When McKenzie's "Salome" funding from a U.S. tycoon collapses in the 1929 Wall Street crash, the intrepid director finds money in Stalin's Soviet Union--granted on the condition that all religious references from the biblical story are removed.

The long-lost footage of "Salome," and the other clips from McKenzie's career, were shot by Jackson during a breathless two weeks, using a range of formats from 35 millimeter to 16 millimeter shot on a vintage spring-wound camera.

Since the clips would supposedly date from 1905 through the mid-1930s, "We approached each one with a slightly different technique to give them a different look.

"We'd shoot at 12 frames, then print every other frame twice. We took unexposed negative, exposed it to light briefly so it was fogged, then shot with that negative so it just looks like aging. Instead of carefully fixing the camera's F-stop, we'd just push it backwards and forwards to make the exposure pump up and down.

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