Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

Dir. Bill Morrison.

Before anything else, this movie is a ghost story.

There are a thousand and one facts to be learned in Dawson City: Frozen Time, a documentary which is rich with knowledge but never didactic. Many of them are part sad and part funny: take, for example, that in the first nine years of Dawson’s existence, the business district burned down every year. Given the town’s relationship to a strange and wonderful discovery—more than five hundred reels of silent film on celluloid, previously believed lost—it seems right that we should have diametric opposites. A remote city in the Yukon is set ablaze with some frequency. A town which a little more than a century ago could boast a population of 40,000 has hovered around 1,000 since World War I, but they keep treasures which were deliberately cast off from New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles. “Film was born of an explosive,” the movie reads, and it isn’t kidding. Nitrate film is a potent explosive, and some of the significant fires in Dawson City, and not just those in Dawson, are attributed directly to film stock which was not properly stored. Go back long enough and all of us have explosive roots, though; quietly, Morrison’s movie about movies is calling our attention to the resurrection of these movies found in an old hockey rink. They were alive and now they will live again. After fifty years in the ground, they certainly qualify as buried treasure; so too do the numbers of movies which, for want of interest or any place to put them, were burned alive or sent down the ice floes to sink into the Pacific.

As the movie reports, only one out of every four silent films has survived to the present day. Part of the problem is the devilishly flammable nitrate film, which took out not just individual reels but entire warehouses. This despite the fact that a safe film was developed in 1910. But the greater problem, Dawson City theorizes, is that sound simply obliterated silence. No one references The Jazz Singer in this movie—the only obvious movie that Morrison throws in is The Gold Rush, which you couldn’t not bring in—but the vision that Morrison presents is one in which The Jazz Singer is the single most important movie ever made. Maybe I’m just sentimental about my history and how I process permanent loss, but there’s something really tragic in the way that a better business model killed not just silent movies but history itself. The fires that Morrison returns to in upper Canada but also in upper New Jersey are sad, the product as much of carelessness as anything else. But purposely shipping off reels of film and dumping them into the ice floes, the same way that all “garbage” had been dealt with for years, is breathtakingly shortsighted policy. One person, upon uncovering some old movies, wrote to the studios about what to do with them. Destroy them, they responded. That never happened, for the movies that were not destroyed but buried instead are the ones that were found in the late ’70s. (It seems remarkable that we know this much of the story, but one Clifford Thomson, the man who put the reels under the rink in the first place, wrote a letter to the editor in response to the rediscovery of the movies themselves. It’s as cinematic as anything else that happens in Dawson City.)

All the same, there is a great sadness when the fear that one might show an old movie and get away with not paying the studios, or worse, the apathy towards yesterday’s fashion, takes over. Alex Somers, a Sigur Ros collaborator, is the one in charge of the film’s ethereal and sometimes unpleasant score; it adds a screeching gloom to Dawson City, like keening at a burial. Morrison’s work is mostly centered on old footage and features, like what he focuses on in this documentary. (The movie, interestingly and tellingly, uses the Dawson find’s footage of the 1919 World Series as a starting point.) There is such care taken for them here that we can’t help personifying the found movies, calling them by their names and reading them in small pieces, like sentences clipped from a novel and scattered by the wind: The RecoilPolly of the CircusThe Trail of ’98, A Soul for SaleA Sagebrush HamletThe Social Buccaneer.

Morrison finds ways to use as much of that footage as possible, no matter its condition. The water damage has created some fascinating and frustrating patterns on segments of the film, and although the movie does not emphasize this fact, it’s worth noting that some portions of the found movies are probably lost. (Late in the film, we hear about local Dawson folks who scoff a little at the “discovery.” We knew it was there for years, they said. We knew as kids that if you lit the film on fire, it would make one heck of a flame.) As well-preserved as much of the finds are, it’s not like they were filmed in digital HD and they were placed on a flock of flashdrives. The end result is that Dawson City has texture in the way that few movies can ever be meaningfully and purposefully textured. It does not exist to place you in some environment with its own textures and tactile signifiers; there’s something much purer about what Morrison has stitched together, a tangible feel against our eyes which is there just because. Less impressive tonally but more impressive from an inside baseball perspective is the way that Morrison ties together similar moments across half a dozen films or more. There are very, very few interviews and no traditional talking heads to speak of. (Fittingly, a story about so many silent movies and a time when so many movies were silent is mostly both.) But when they tell a story, about writing a letter or getting on the phone, Morrison has the clips prepared from different films to provide an action for the words. Aside from the obvious research and frame-by-frame knowledge of the movies that he’s referencing, it seems almost simple. The simplicity of noting the repetition of history, or the connection we have to the past, becomes more and more poignant the longer it lasts.

If Morrison gets a little off-task, he does so in service of lefty politics. There is a lengthy plotline which has to do with the Klondike Gold Rush and the rise and fall of Dawson as a hub, and there are several branches which emerge: the burgeoning fortune of Fred Trump, the education of Sid Grauman and Jack London, the prose of Robert Service and the performance of William Desmond Taylor. As far distant as Dawson is, it is never remote from the changes that North America embarked on wholesale in the decades to come. For these, the photography of Eric Hegg, matched with some archived footage, shows us the stunning and daunting task that prospectors took on when they came to the Yukon. 100,000 men came, it’s noted; 70,000 died or turned back. As much as any other single person, Hegg is the “star” of Dawson City, an immigrant who photographed the Klondike Gold Rush before doing the same in Nome. There’s a really fascinating moment in which his negatives are saved by a hair’s breadth from becoming the glass in someone’s greenhouse; like the films put beneath a hockey rink, they are saved only by a mixture of sympathy and chance. The city falls in love with gambling, moving pictures, and hockey, probably in that order, and goes from a raucous frontier mining town to a fairly demure model of decency. (In any event, they got rid of the gambling.) A building for the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association becomes a hub for the conversations the movie has about its movies, for one thing, but also about the public life of a city which alters as the city shrinks. All of this is engrossing, but Morrison is surprisingly quiet about the connection between the consolidation of property in Dawson and the insurgent labor movements he focuses on to some length. One is pleased to see him carry the story of Alexander Berkman beyond the images found of him in Dawson, or the connection of Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ anti-union decisions to the Black Sox scandal depicted in ancient footage. As welcome as this perspective is, it feels tacked-on, a little tenuous compared to the marvelous work that Morrison does with the history of Dawson and the way that hundreds of missing footage landed at the end of the line, waiting years to be appreciated.

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