Film as a medium is often an entertainment, occasionally it rises to the level of art, but it is always a historical record. This is obvious when one thinks about documentaries or newsreels, but even narrative film captures a point in time and unintentional historical information, such as modes of dress, hairstyles, discontinued products, forgotten businesses, and architecture that has long since disappeared. Few movies convey the ability for film to serve as a portal into the past better than the 2016 documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time by director Bill Morrison.
In 1978, a construction project in Dawson City, Yukon in Canada uncovered canisters of nitrate film. Construction was halted, and an archeological team eventually exhumed 533 silent film prints dating back to the early 1900s. Those prints included hundreds of newsreels, shorts, and features for which the “Dawson City film find” unearthed the only surviving copy. Morrison’s film tells the story of how those film reels came to be found underground in the remains of a community swimming pool. It’s a story that includes the Yukon Gold Rush of 1896, hockey, the 1917 Black Sox scandal, multiple fires, fortunes made and lost, and a movie distribution chain, on which Dawson was the final stop.
Dawson City: Frozen Time was not at all what I was expecting. I anticipated a Ken Burns-like walkthrough of the subject matter with authoritative narration by Peter Coyote or Morgan Freeman. Instead, Bill Morrison’s documentary is much more avant-garde. Apart from a few brief opening and closing scenes, which feature news footage about the film discovery and a handful of interviews with the parties involved, the rest of the film is completely silent except for the experimental score by composer Alex Somers. The story of the gold strike, the resulting birth of the town, the movies that took two to five years to travel to the Northernmost part of the distribution chain, the burial of the films, and their eventual rediscovery is told almost exclusively through the partially-decayed footage of the discovered films and through contemporaneous photographs by Eric Hegg (which had their own miraculous rediscovery). What little narrative is needed to tell the story is displayed on-screen in the form of brief text. The lack of a narrator forces the the viewer to keep their eyes fixed upon the screen, to take in the beautiful images discovered in the Yukon permafrost.
The experience of watching Bill Morrison’s film can best be described as hypnotic; and the speckles and blobs of film rot (caused by years of water damage) that accompany the hundred year-old images are often as beguiling as the subjects depicted. Morrison’s film is history projected at 24 frames per second (and often less, as silent film speeds varied). Whether you are a movie lover, history buff, or photography enthusiast, Dawson City: Frozen Time is essential viewing.
USA/B&W+C-120m./Dir: Bill Morrison/Wr: Bill Morrison/Cast: Kathy Jones-Gates, Michael Gates, Sam Kula, Bill O’Farrell, Chris ‘Mad Dog’ Russo, Bill Morrison
If You Like: Fans of the image-heavy documentaries of Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball, etc.) may like the mix of history, still images, and silent film in Dawson City: Frozen Time.
Video: Kino Lorber’s
Dawson City: Frozen Time [Blu-ray] provides pristine image quality for footage that is far from pristine. The picture and audio quality are top notch. Plus, if you want to dig deeper into the “Dawson City film find,” the disc includes a multitude of special features.
- Booklet essays by Lawrence Weschler and Alberto Zambenedetti
- An interview with filmmaker Bill Morrison
- A postscript to the documentary
- The theatrical trailer
Also included are several short films from the Dawson City film find:
- British Canadian Pathé News 81A, 1919
- International News Vol. 1, Issue 52, 1919
- The Montreal Herald Screen Magazine, 1919
- Pathé’s Weekly #17, 1914
- The Butler and the Maid, Thomas A. Edison Inc., 1912
- Brutality, D.W. Griffith, Biograph Company, 1912
- The Exquisite Thief, Tod Browning, Universal Film Manufacturing Company Inc., 1919
- The Girl of the Northern Woods, Thanhouser, 1910
Dawson City: Frozen Timeis available for digital purchase or rental on Amazon, but it isn’t currently available as part of a streaming subscription package.
More to Explore: Director Bill Morrison previously used decaying film to create a hallucinatory effect in his experimental film Decasia (2012), which can be found on the release
Decasia (Plus: Light is Calling) [Blu-ray].
Trivia: Although most of the actors seen in the film clips included within the documentary are unknown to today’s audiences, sharp-eyed viewers can spot Lon Chaney (Sr.) in a clip from If My Country Should Call (1916). The full film (at least as much as could be recovered from the Dawson dig) is included in the new DVD
Lon Chaney: Before the Thousand Faces.
For More Info: Film historian Kevin Brownlow chronicled the story of pioneering silent filmmakers that went outside the confines of the studio to film on real locations, inadvertently documenting real history, in his book
The West, The War, and The Wilderness.