Dawson City: Frozen Time Review
Early on in Bill Morrison’s mesmerising documentary we are reminded how film was born of an explosive by John Carbutt, Hannibal Goodwin and Eastman Kodak back in 1889. It was a detonation that has continued to transform our lives, memories and culture 130 years later. Yet, with almost 75% of American silent cinema lost due to the self-destructive nature of early nitrate film, a huge part of its history has remained out of our grasp. That’s part of the reason why Dawson City: Frozen Time takes us on such an immersive journey, as it brings to the screen a collection of footage that was once assumed lost forever.
What Morrison manages to do with the footage is simply magical. Not only does he show a stream of silent films unseen by the world for almost 100 years, but he weaves it into a timeline of a small mining town that reflects the growth of a country and the expansion of human life. 533 reels were discovered in 1978 during the early stages of construction work on a new building in Dawson City, situated on the Yukon River in northwest Canada. In all, it totalled almost half a million feet of film, from which 372 titles were carefully restored.
While Auguste and Louis Lumière were recording onto film for the first ever time in 1895, hundreds of miles away along the Klondike River in Canada, a new source of gold was discovered. Dawson City was formed by American prospectors on land owned by the Hän people. Once word got out about the gold, their communities were forced to move down river, and a town that was home to 3,500 people exploded into 40,000 inhabitants within the space of three years. 100,000 stampeders quickly arrived in search of gold – 70% of whom either died or turned back when faced with the brutal winter conditions. This became known as the Klondike Gold Rush, a period of history shown by Charlie Chaplin in his 1925 film The Gold Rush.
There are three main stories being told simultaneously by Morrison. The footage found on the reels are used to show the boom and bust of Dawson before, during and after the rush for gold. He tells us how the Hän people were moved on by newly arrived prospectors, along with countless snippets revealing the rediscovered history of early cinema. Although it has become tiresome and lazy to tie everything into Trump today, Morrison is able to trace the roots of the family empire. The president's grandfather, Friedrich Trump, was one of many who arrived in Dawson in search of making his fortune, and he did so by successfully opening a restaurant and brothel.
Dawson City was the end of a distribution line for Hollywood during the early part of the 20th century. Films would typically take 2-4 years to arrive in the town, and after running at the local picture house they would be ready for return. However, the distributors did not want to pay the high cost of shopping them back, so local Dawson film agents (bank managers) would store the reels underneath the local library. When there was no space left they were either dumped in the Yukon or thrown onto a bonfire. With 100 years of hindsight now on our side, your heart can’t help but break a little when you hear of the casualness of it all.
Also found was newsreel footage of the time, which features never seen reports about baseball's infamous Black Sox Scandal. There are personal recordings of important local buildings and development of the surrounding area, providing a rare and intimate insight into life 100 years ago in this remote mountain town. Growing in tempo with Alex Somers’ ethereal score, Morrison builds to a beautifully moving crescendo of human activity, history and achievement that leaves you breathless with wonder.
Alex Somers’ affecting score is equally as important to the success of the film. He most recently scored Captain Fantastic, and is an ongoing collaborator with Icelandic avant-rock band Sigur Ros. Much like silent cinema itself, the music enhances the beauty of the images as they flicker across the screen. His use of processed acoustic instruments wrapped in reverb creates a haunting, ethereal soundscape that sends chills down your spine.
Watching the beautiful chaos of the decomposing prints is transcendent at times, the ghost-like images evoking memories of a past we now have the privilege of seeing. Yet, there is also a certain sadness at seeing these films fighting for their life against the erosion of time pushing in from the edges. It manages to blur the line between the spiritual and a dream-like state, creating something truly rare, abstract and wonderfully alien. This also recalls Morrison’s 2002 documentary, Decasia, which followed a similar pattern of placing decaying nitrate film against a symphonic score to powerful effect.
This feels like a culmination of a journey Morrison has been on for much of his directorial career. The richness of the footage at his disposal, combined with his innate understanding of the material, and the use of an otherworldly score turn this into an experience every film fan needs to be part of. He brings us closer than ever to a missing piece of cinema history, with a heart-felt love letter that confirms how even time cannot stop the transformative power of an art form still very much in its infancy.
Included in the Second Run DVD are some extras that offer a decent-sized portion of additional background to the film. Interview with Bill Morrison does what it says on the tin, with the director recalling his path into becoming a director, before detailing how he got involved with, and worked on, this latest project.
Dawson City: Postscript offers more information about what happened to the 533 reels after they were dug up in 1978. We are shown some of the early restoration processes they underwent, before eventually finding a home in a specially designed facility that would prevent the nitrate films from catching fire and self-destructing.
The Letter features 12 minutes of the decayed silent film footage, aided by Ricardo Romaneiro's subtle score. Combined with the white noise of the erosion, it makes for mesmerising viewing. The broken nature of images makes it feel as if we have travelled through time, peeking through ragged interference into an entirely different world.
Dawson City: Frozen Time will be available to buy on Blu-ray and DVD on 18th February 2019.