Dawson City: Frozen Time is unlike any film you’re likely to have seen before. The discovery and subsequent restoration of 533 reels of 35mm nitrate film prints buried as landfill in a swimming pool provides the way into director Bill Morrison‘s astonishing new documentary. The film is a multi-layered study so densely packed with information that it had my head spinning. The cast of characters includes the Lumière Brothers, Thomas Edison, photographer Eric Hegg, newsboy Sid Grauman, “Klondike Kate” Rockwell and Alexander Pantages, poet Robert Service, William Desmond Taylor, Apple Jimmy Oglow and Chief Isaac, Robert Flaherty, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, sports promoter Tex Rickard, and Alice Guy-Blaché, who directed over 1000 films from 1896 to 1920. These are but a few of the people we encounter along the way; there are many more. The stories weave in and out of each other and connect, often in surprising ways, part of a little-known history. It’s like reading E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.
Dawson City is in Canada, in the Yukon, approximately 173 miles below the Arctic Circle. In 1978, while digging up ground to start construction of a new community center, reels of film were found buried. They’d been in the ground for 50 years. These represented 372 silent films from the 1910s to the 1920s. On one level, Morrison’s film is a history of Dawson City at the turn of the 20th Century, told through the use of many clips from the recovered films, as well as archival news footage and still photographs, to give a sense of the time and place. It’s also about the early years of cinema, loss, recovery, and memory.
Per Bill Morrison: “It is an amazing story in and of itself, the rediscovery of 533 film reels that were preserved in permafrost while all other known copies perished from fire or neglect. But that discovery was only part of a larger and perhaps even more compelling story – the story of the gold rush town of Dawson City and how it went from a sleepy fishing camp of First Nation Hän-speaking natives, to a town of 40,000 gold-crazed stampeders within two years, and then how it then reverted back to a town of 1000 where it weathered out the century. And then it contains many more stories, those specific to this town and its unique relationship to cinema, and those stories told in the newsreels and features that were recovered in 1978. It is literal time capsule of histories converging on each other, layered and self-referential, silver film having been returned to the same earth that gold was removed from. The role cinema played was central and essential to the telling of these stories. For me, you only come across a film story like this once in a lifetime. It is my Titanic. It is a perfect distillation of the 20th century.”
Dawson City was the last stop on the film distribution circuit. Many of the films didn’t play there until two to three years after their initial release. Studios and distributors didn’t want to pay to have the films returned, so hundreds of them piled up, many to be later dumped into the Yukon River after talkies came on the scene. I didn’t recognize any of the films Morrison included here. They had titles I’d never heard of before, such as The Bludgeon (1915), The Purple Mask (1916), and The Recoil (1917). Later, when I saw the listing of the films in the end credits, there was a film directed by D. W. Griffith (Brutality – 1912), and The Half-Breed (1916), directed by Alan Dwan, starring Douglas Fairbanks. But these were mostly films that hadn’t lived on because they’d disappeared.
Information is conveyed through on-screen titles rather than spoken narration. Of the 372 films from the collection that were preserved, 124 titles are represented in this film. An example of a device the film frequently uses is that when we’re told that Pathé introduced the Newsreel in 1911, this is accompanied by clips of characters reading newspapers from different recovered films. I feel that sometimes this goes on too long, with too many clips, but the opportunity to see more footage from these films outweighs that reservation. The extremely effective music score by Alex Somers conveys a sense of great expectations, of something always building.
Dawson City: Frozen Time begins with the discovery of the buried film, then flashes back in time. I was startled to see actual footage of the Lumière Brothers themselves, and then later, Thomas Edison. We then get a history of nitrate film, how it was discovered and how it was made. Nitrate stock is extremely volatile, it can burst into flames at the slightest provocation. It’s difficult to store and dangerous to handle. No one in their right mind would use it, and yet it was the standard. As the film tells us, after decades of warehouse fires, it was finally replaced by acetate safety stock in 1949. The irony of this is that a safety film was developed in 1910, but studios continued to use nitrate stock because it was cheaper to make. In an interesting side note we learn that in 1913 in Toronto, Robert Flaherty accidentally ignited the first 30,000 feet of Nanook of the North with a lit cigarette. In 1914, Thomas Edison’s film manufacturing plant spontaneously exploded. These are but two examples cited in the film. Nitrate films were bursting into flame and exploding all over the place. A tag line on the Dawson City: Frozen Time poster is “Film was born of an explosive.” After arrangements were made to restore the recovered films, the problem was how to get it to the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa. No one was willing to transport nitrate film, though the Canadian Air Force agreed to take the films on a C-130 cargo plane.
I mentioned earlier that Dawson City: Frozen Time is densely packed with information. Dawson City becomes a kind of nexus of people and events that radiate out from Dawson itself. Sid Grauman, a newsboy in Dawson, moves to Hollywood and builds several movie theaters, including Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Tex Rickard, who promoted boxing matches at the Monte Carlo, the largest hotel-casino-dancehall in Dawson, later founds the New York Nets and re-builds Madison Square Garden. “Klondike Kate” Rockwell and bartender Alexander Pantages rebuild the Orpheum Theater in Dawson and begin showing motion pictures. Pantages later became a great movie tycoon with over 70 theaters in North America, including the RKO Pantages in Hollywood, where the Academy Awards were presented for many years. William Desmond Taylor worked as a time keeper on a mining dredge from 1908 to 1912, then moved to Hollywood where he directed 60 films before his still-unsolved murder in 1922. There’s more. I saw the film again and took seven pages of notes, but this is enough for now.
There are clips at the end that take Dawson City: Frozen Time to a powerfully moving climax. Two of them really got me. The first, from The Butler and the Maid (1912), shows a woman’s arms extending out of a swath of water damage on the right half of the frame toward a man clearly seen in the left half of the frame. The man suddenly sees her and reaches back, but they do not touch. It has a very mysterious feel, a kind of longing. For me it begins to suggest the presence of something Other trying to break into the film.
Most of the recovered films exhibit some degree of water damage to the image. Rather than detracting, it adds something hard to define, a weird beauty all its own.
The final scene in the film, from a 1912 newsreel, is of a woman dancing with frenzied abandoned on a stage, her head and face wrapped in a diaphanous scarf, fighting to survive as she’s nearly consumed by the erupting clouds of water damage. It’s haunting, moving, and sad.
Earlier I found myself writing the title as Dawson City: Frozen Dreams, instead of Frozen Time. That would work as well. – Ted Hicks
Dawson City: Frozen Time is playing at the IFC Center in New York City from Friday, June 9 through Thursday, June 15. Additional playdates and locations can be found here. When the page opens, scroll down and click on “playdates.”
A Film Comment interview with Bill Morrison last October when Dawson City: Frozen Time was shown at the New York Film Festival can be accessed here.
Here is a short interview with Bill Morrison at the 54th New York Film Festival, where Dawson City: Frozen Time was shown.