Peter Jackson Double Feature
(New Zealand, 1996, 53 minutes, b/w and color, 35 mm)
And it is all complete hogwash.
Forgotten Silver is Peter Jackson's elaborate jape at the earnest world of film preservation. His "Colin McKenzie" is a loving fabrication, his story strewn with just enough non-sequiturs to arouse suspicion. There is, for instance, the matter of the Chinese dialogue in The Warrior Season. And those constant frustrations at the hands of Forces Larger Than Himself; Colin's struggles against fate and Miramax begin to make Heart of Darkness look like a clambake. Move over, Orson Welles. Step aside, Erich von Stroheim -- here's a guy who's really suffered. Like This is Spinal Tap, Forgotten Silver plays on the conventions of documentary to poke fun at self-satisfied artistic authenticity. In a backhanded way, the film is a love letter to the movies, all the way from Colin's youthful bicycle-driven projector to his four months long berry-distillation project that nets him 22 seconds of finished film. But tell that to the people who first saw the film, presented without explanation, on New Zealand television, and demanded everything from a knighthood to a Wheaties box for their newly-discovered Kiwi hero, master filmmaker Colin McKenzie.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
The following is a review by Marc Savlov that appeared in the Austin Chronicle, April 10, 1998:
Kiwi auteur Colin McKenzie is the most famous filmmaker you’ve never heard of in this wonderfully subtle "mockumentary" from the man behind Dead Alive and Heavenly Creatures. It’s so subtle, in fact, that you’d hardly know anything was amiss were it not for one brief scene featuring a Russian records czar with the improbable name of Alexandra Nevsky and Leonard Maltin’s slightly over-exuberant pontificatings that run throughout. As the film opens (it’s preceded by an equally excellent 15-minute-long short called "Signing Off" by Robert Sarkies), the rotund Jackson is tramping about his neighbor’s garden shed in which, he reveals, he’s recently uncovered an astonishing cinematic find—an old steamer-trunk full of film canisters marked with the name C. McKenzie. Jackson goes on to tell the history of how Colin McKenzie was the first New Zealand filmmaker.
Born in 1888, McKenzie was creating and showing films in his backyard at the age of 12 by using a bicycle-powered projection system and film emulsion made from egg whites. In his quest for more information on this neglected auteur, Jackson enlists the aid of everyone from the aforementioned Maltin (who calls the discovery of McKenzie’s epic Salome the equivalent of discovering, say, Citizen Kane) to New Zealand actor Sam Neill and Miramax head Harvey Weinstein (who promises to lobby for the inclusion of Salome in the next Academy Awards ballot). All of this is done with such straight faces that the jokes seem less like jokes and more like a new episode of John Pierson’s Split Screen, and that’s the magic of this cunning web of trickery—it’s sublimely silly and perfectly believable all at once.
Still, the film manages some wild flights of fancy. We’re told that one recently unearthed McKenzie reel documents the first successful airplane flight by New Zealand’s Richard Pearse—a full six months before the Wright Brothers soared at Kitty Hawk—and the fact that the filmmaker’s first talkie, The Warrior Season (made over a decade before The Jazz Singer), bombed at the box office because the actors were all Chinese and the director neglected to include subtitles. Ludicrous though it may seem, Jackson and Botes work magic with an absolutely amazing collection of faux McKenzie films, stills, and archival footage that are beautifully aged, grainy, and 100% realistic.
Realism, indeed, is not only the hallmark of the filmmakers but also their subject, who recruited thousands of extras and trucked them off to the most remote part of New Zealand’s rainforest to build a full-scale recreation of biblical Jerusalem for Salome. It’s all an elaborate hoax, of course, but one of the most entertaining ones to come down the pike in a good long while, and it offers yet more proof—if any should be needed—that Jackson is a gleefully, deliciously deranged filmmaker.
There is a small group of films about savage crimes that seek to answer "why?" less by investigating the crime and piecing together clues, than by peering intently into the eyes of the criminals. In this strange little company, there is Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Brother's Keeper, Richard Brooks' In Cold Blood, Richard Fleischer's 10 Rillington Place, Terence Malick's Badlands, Fred Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, and now, Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures.
In the early 1950's, in Christchurch, New Zealand, two very ordinary-seeming teenagers, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme became lovers. They came more and more to seek favor and identity in one another. Their world gradually folded in on itself. Gradually, the way in which Pauline and Juliet measured right and wrong and good and evil dissolved into pure relativism. In 1954, they battered Pauline's mother to death. Odd and wayward-seeming to those outside their cloistered, mad friendship, the girls were clearly of little danger to the rest of the community if their weirdly fused ego could be separated. They spent only until 1959 in prison, their release conditioned on their never seeing each other again.
It is from this proposition that Heavenly Creatures begins, with one of the most bravura opening sequences seen in recent cinema. Jackson's style here, as in his previous films such as Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles, draws attention to itself constantly. The girls live inside a kind of mental kaleidescope, a hallucinatory landscape in which they become each other's imaginary best friend. Jackson's swooning camera movements depict the inner lives of the girls with obsessive elegance; this is a film that simply replaces the killers' reality with the one the rest of us know, and then invites us in. Jackson uses the cinema as acoorelative for an intoxicating kind of madness, a madness spent in a lush, schizophrenic utopia, a place in its own way as believable and inviting as Jackson's equally well-articulated fantasy landscape of Middle Earth of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
Pauline (played by Melanie Lynskey) has come to New Zealand from London, and Jackson and Winslet conspire to present her with a morbid eroticism. Pauline arrives at school seeking a celebrity. Several have appealing qualities for her; she enshrines Orson Welles, and reinvents Mario Lanza as a chubby religious icon, but these are finally too distant for her needs. Pauline requires that the object of her devotion be present to recieve her obsequies, and so, she comes to make Juliet (played by Kate Winslet in her first important role), her guiding spirit. We see Pauline as Juliet does, gorgeous and grotesque at the same time, and quite mesmerizing. When Pauline's mother slices through their lovely dreaming insanity with an insistence on the prosaic truth of real life, with its cheapness and banality, the two heavenly creatures lash out. Honora Parker has to be disposed of if the seamlessness of the girls' fantasies are to be preserved.
But this is not a film that judges the the young murderers with a wagging finger and a stern gaze. There is no "lesson" here for the rest of us. Jackson wants us neither to love them nor hate them, but simply to feel with them, to know their world as they knew it, from within, a world by turns dangerous and sultry. Pauline's and Juliet's life together is a cult of fetish and delusion, and Peter Jackson brings it to us with visual relish and a compassion that verges on enthusiasm.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
The following is a review by Roger Ebert that appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, November 23, 1994:
New Zealand was stunned in 1952 by a brutal murder carried out by two girls, ages 15 and 16, who crushed the skull of one of their mothers with a rock. It was whispered at the time that the girls had a lesbian relationship; but since almost everyone involved, including the girls, knew very little about what that might entail, the subject was suppressed. Tried and sentenced, the girls served five years in prison before being paroled on the condition that they never see each other again.
Their story, based on facts but interpreted with a great deal of freedom, is the inspiration for "Heavenly Creatures," a new film by Peter Jackson….The movie shows the crime as resulting from a tragic confluence of coincidences: Two girls, both emotionally unstable in just the right way to complement each other’s weaknesses, are outsiders in a Christchurch girls’ school. They become fast friends, bound by a fascination for the macabre. Simple, stolid Pauline is dazzled by Juliet, who thinks nothing of correcting the French teacher. But Pauline has status in Juliet’s eyes, too, not least because of a scar on her leg, after an operation for bone disease: "All the best people have had chest and bone disease! It’s all frightfully romantic!"
Almost everything is frightfully romantic in the lives of these girls, who become inseparable, sharing crushes on the tenor Mario Lanza and such movie stars as Orson Welles. They become intoxicated by their friendship, rushing headlong everywhere, with squeals and giggles, giddy with delight at the private world they are creating. Their parents are out of the loop—especially Juliet’s mother, a psychologist who is much more concerned with proving her own fading sexuality than with communicating with her daughter.
The girls are separated when one contracts tuberculosis. They begin to write each other long, detailed letters about the events in an imaginary country they have created, with dream castles and heroic figures with which they identify. Jackson uses fantasy sequences to make this world as real for us as it is to the girls, who inhabit it as an alternative to the daily lives they find dreary.
Adults grow disturbed by the closeness of the girls; lesbianism is suspected by people for whom the very word cannot be spoken. Indeed we can see, in awkward little scenes in which they wrestle together or exchange "accidental" kisses, that there is a strong bond between Juliet and Pauline, but whether it is homosexual or asexual is not for anyone in this movie to ask, or understand. In any event, it is decided the girls "see too much" of each other, and would "benefit by a change," and in terror at being separated the girls plan and carry out a horrible murder.
Casting is a delicate matter in telling a story like this, and in Melanie Lynskey as Pauline and Kate Winslet as Juliet, Jackson has found the right two actresses. There is a way Lynskey has of looking up from beneath glowering eyebrows that lets you know her insides are churning. And Juliet, superficially so "bright" and normal, laughs too much, agrees too quickly, always exists just this side of hysteria.
The insight of "Heavenly Creatures" is that sometimes people are capable of committing acts together that they could not commit by themselves. A mob can be as small as two persons. Reading in the paper recently about a crowd of teenage boys who beat an innocent youth to death, I was reminded of this film. Sometimes tragedies happen because each person is waiting for someone else to say "no!"
In the case of Pauline and Juliet, that truth is complicated by their own emotional maladjustments. What makes Jackson’s film enthralling and frightening is the way it shows these two unhappy girls, creating an alternative world so safe and attractive they thought it was worth killing for.
The following is taken from a review by Peter Travers that appeared in Rolling Stone, November 1994:
Jackson opens his hyperkinetic film with a documentary clip detailing the sedate city of Christchurch, where the events took place. It’s the only chance to catch your breath before Jackson jumpcuts to the immediate aftermath of the crime, with a bloody Pauline and Juliet running through Victoria Park after bludgeoning Pauline’s mother, Honora (a memorably poignant Sarah Peirse), with a rock wrapped in a stocking.
Jackson and co-writer Frances Walsh tell the rest of the story in flashback with the help of voice-overs from Pauline’s diary that explain how her dull life changed with the arrival of Juliet. Barbed wit isn’t the only trait the two share. Both vent their feverish imaginations in writing, inventing a mythical world called Borovnia where creatures avenge any slight the girls perceived in reality. Juliet’s wealthy parents, Hilda (Diana Kent) and Henry (Clive Merrison), are guilty of neglect, Pauline’s mother is judged a worse offender. Seeing a closeness she finds unnatural in the girls, Honora contrives to keep them apart.
Jackson’s visionary triumph, heightened by the blazing performances of Lynskey and Winslet and by Alun Bollinger’s whirling camera, is in capturing the delirium as the girls whip themselves into an erotic frenzy with Mario Lanza records, semi-naked dances in the woods and revenge fantasies. The unthinkable becomes suddenly real. Though Pauline hasn’t been heard from since her release in 1959, Juliet was recently revealed to be the best-selling mystery writer Anne Perry. It’s a fitting postscript to a startling and haunting film.
The following is taking from a profile of Anne Perry by Linda Richards that appeared in January Magazine, Nov. 1998:
In her [publicity] bio… Anne Perry writes, "I was born in London, England in 1938, a few months before the war, and spent the first years of my life there, although I was evacuated a couple of times for short periods. My schooling was very interrupted, both by frequent moves and by ill-health. But I do not feel as if I have been deprived because of it... Because much of my education was acquired haphazardly, there are some rather large gaps in it, and some odd additions. I missed most of my schooling from thirteen to eighteen, then took University Entrance examinations and passed in English, Latin, history and geography."
In Anne Perry’s case, acquiring an education haphazardly is a rather delicate euphemism for incarceration. Perry was well on her way to becoming an internationally known mystery writer when her secret came out: as a teenager in New Zealand, Perry and her best friend were tried and convicted for killing the other girl’s mother. No doubt it was much to Perry’s embarrassment that details of the story came to light. Nor could she have been particularly enthusiastic about the 1994 film—Heavenly Creatures—that was made about the story. In that regard, I only know what I’ve read: understandably, it’s not something that Perry likes to discuss.
In person, Anne Perry is much as expected. It’s not even difficult to imagine the girl Kate Winslet portrayed in the film growing to be this cultured and mature woman. She is tall, slender, perfectly coifed and turned out when I meet her: she is elegant and her bearing is regal. We meet in a busy bistro and there is noise all around. The clink of glasses, the midrange hum of a successful eatery. Somewhere at a distant table, a child cries intermittently. Perry pays attention to none of it. She meets my gaze with her own clear blue one, sits serenely and answers quietly.
Perry has not been an overnight sensation. Still relatively unknown in her native United Kingdom, Perry’s North American audience has been growing in modulated spurts since the publication of her first book, The Cater Street Hangman. In the last few years, however, that has been changing as well, while a steadily increasing number of readers are tuning into her two series of well-honed Victorian mysteries. And while Perry will be the first to admit she didn’t invent the genre, she’s certainly done much to increase its popularity.
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.