FILM REVIEW: Dawson City: Frozen Time (2017) by Bill Morrison

When I was in college and before I ultimately settled on pursuing a degree in Comparative Literature for my Bachelor’s program, I momentarily played with the idea of going to school for film archival. At the time, I was obsessed with silent film and the idea of working to preserve any bit of filmed history I could find was always intriguing to me. This lore surrounding early film is also undoubtedly of interest to filmmaker Bill Morrison, and I previously came to grips with his fascination for old film through his 2004 experimental short Light is Calling. Through a series of frames set to music and violently obscured by what appears to be decay and damage, he nonetheless emits an emotional contemplation of the fleeting nature of life and love, by way of these beautiful prints that are mere notches away from total incomprehension.

Thus, his latest film Dawson City: Frozen Time continues to take us along a different sort of history lesson, all running parallel to the story of the physical art of filmmaking and photography themselves. Essentially, the documentary carves out a vivid history of Dawson City, a historical town located in Yukon, Canada. It begins with the town’s founding at the center of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897 and its life as a thriving economy (along with its eventual downfall). It ends with the 1978 discovery of more than 500 discarded films buried beneath what used to be the town’s hockey rink and preserved by its own permafrost. Stylistically, it felt much like a Ken Burns-style documentary, though decidedly in absence of the talking heads and voiceover narration. Instead, Morrison chooses to let a vast collection of period-era photographs and film snippets do most of the talking, likely an homage to the lost method of storytelling through picture alone, a method that defined the silent film era.

As a history lesson, this is all pretty fascinating. I have had pretty much no knowledge of this town (growing up near Los Angeles, the Klondike Gold Rush was often ignored in school in favor of its California counterpart), and Morrison does a terrific job at detailing its unparalleled importance to the history of the Americas at the turn of the century. The pacing is decidedly languid, and while the middle does drag for a bit more than I would’ve liked, most of the film is just too mesmerizing to look away. For folks like me who are absolutely enamored with the silent film aesthetic, this one is a feast for the eyes – something about these countless lovely images scrawled with a century’s worth of its own decay and damage is both inexplicably sad and undeniably poetic. I can’t deny, though, that while the images on display are certainly beautiful, the haunting score by frequent Sigur Rós collaborator Alex Somers elevates this to some truly breathtaking levels.

As much Dawson City: Frozen Time is a straight-forward documentary, though, it also reflects in its own way how the role of these films, not unlike the ones eventually dug up by excavators, became vital to the town’s downward spiral. One of the first lessons actually given by the documentary is how nitrate film is made, as well as its reputation for being extremely flammable. The movie begins with a breathtakingly beautiful montage of the film being created in a factory, from the mixing of chemicals to the flattening and cutting away of the solid product itself. The creative process may be a mystical one, but relevant to nitrate film in particular are its destructive properties, noted in the frequent mentions of how many buildings and factories of Dawson City were burned down from accidents involving nitrate film, even taking lives with it at times. While the town thrived in capital for as long as it can, the film ironically became a consistently dangerous presence in its own ways. This also, of course, highlights how much of a miracle it was that so much film survived the town’s treacherous history in the first place!

However, just as important to the scope of the town’s history are the details that are left unspoken. The film mentions both William Desmond Taylor and Roscoe Arbuckle as having their origins in Dawson City, yet decidedly leaves out their famously tragic fates after making the move to Hollywood. Moreover, among the successful businessmen to strike gold in the town was German immigrant Frederick Trump, who would go on to found what would eventually become The Trump Organization, a name that just brings a chill up my spine. And finally (maybe most importantly), the documentary at the start of the narrative and only briefly touches upon the displacement of indigenous First Nation people to make way for the sudden influx of miners to the North. I do wish that this final point was touched upon a bit more, as it seemed sadly unfair to ignore such a large group of displaced people in such a way. Nonetheless, these curious omissions do show that despite the overwhelming positivity that highlighted the prosperity received by Dawson City, its undeniable that a dark streak is ever-present.

There was so much I loved about this film that drew from my love of silent film as a whole. It felt like a compelling resurrection of a timeless, unique bit of history, though never quite delved into “love letter” territory that documentary filmmakers often do but rarely do effectively. Although much about its pacing is slow and dreamy, there are some occasionally arresting bits of editing that call to mind the wild, naive energy that so many of these older films tend to possess so organically. Honestly, the only part I could say that I was genuinely bored by was when it recalled the gambling conspiracy scandal of the 1919 World Series. Although I understand that the discovery of never-before-seen footage of the game was one of the most paramount finds of the lot, I just found it a dull, needless attempt to fill up time – although I’d blame my own personal disinterest in baseball rather than any fault in the film’s part. In any case, the Alice Guy-Blaché callout more than made up for it!

Though I think what I loved the most about Dawson City: Frozen Time is its continued demonstration of Bill Morrison’s uncanny ability to use the physical medium of film as an introspection of history, time, and the human experience itself. Most emphasized here are the fleeting memories, the ones that gradually disappear as the folks who experienced Dawson City’s early days leave this world forever. It was a town that was as defined by its shiny commercial affluence as it was its continual destruction and rebuilding – until one day, it ceased to be rebuilt. Its not unlike the activity of watching a silent film, marked by pronounced moments where the frame reminds us of its age, marking the edges with static and cigarette burns. At that point, the art of watching becomes a chance to live in the moment, to appreciate that this work of art is currently the best shape it will ever be in again, and to cherish this second while it still lingers in the dark room. Unless, of course, someone actually does light a cigarette and the delicate strip of nitrate spontaneously combusts – almost like it never existed in the first place.

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