Bill Morrison’s 'Dawson City' makes new art from an amazing cache of old films

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In Dawson City, a depopulated town left over from the Klondike Gold Rush, a bulldozer operator was razing the defunct swimming pool of the abandoned rec hall when he discovered a vast cache of film reels: 533 in all. The films were all from the silent era, and the discovery, in 1978, was hailed as one of the greatest finds in cinematic history. In Dawson City: Frozen Time, Bill Morrison uses the excavated footage to tell the story of the discovery, as well as the history of the Klondike Gold Rush, the advent of American capitalism, labor movements, women’s right to vote—and the downfall of the Chicago White Sox. Mesmerizing, mind-bending, Dawson City brings us to the heart of cinema and everything American.

Director Talk: Did you have an “Aha!”moment while you were looking through the material, or did you know in advance how you were going to put it together?

Bill Morrison: This is what I knew in advance: It was a great story, it was a fairly linear story, and there was so much material that I was going to be able to piece some of it together just using the material that was there. I knew there was also a lot of supporting material out there, and as I started to look I found that there was quite a bit more than I anticipated—local stuff, home movies. I had no way of knowing there would be so much there.

Cliff Thomson, the bank manager, laid out the causality of how the films ended up in the swimming pool, and I thought there was some way I would be able to put that together. What I didn’t realize was that I would be able to expand it to include the entire century. I thought, OK, I have every decade represented here, and I can fill in the gaps from 1895 to 1929, then from 1929 to 1978, so at one point I realized I was working on a film that was much bigger than just the discovery of these films.

DT: There are so many layers to this movie. When you watch a film, it feels like a very fleeting thing, and you don’t think of it as a physical object that ends up somewhere. You included juxtapositions that made viewing the film a really rich experience: the juxtaposition of fleeting/enduring, the ephemeral/the physical, and also destruction—the destruction of the environment, the native population—vs. corporate “construction.” Talk about how you dealt with juxtaposition, because for me that was a very salient characteristic of the film.

Morrison: Destruction runs through the whole film. You’ve identified a lot of the themes, but of course a big underlying point is that these films were physical, like we are, and that they in some ways mimic our own travel through the century as physical beings. Then there’s this other component to them, and that’s that they are ethereal; they’re fleeting both in their physicality and also when they’re projected, and of course they’re only projected a few times.

Marking my way through it, there were these themes that just kept coming up. They would link and pair with each other, so there were times when I would make pockets of them, and there were times when just by adopting a fairly chronological structure they would just intercept again with the timeline. When the fires came up, that took care of itself, but as I started to go through the massive trove of the footage, I had to find ways to organize it.

Of course, the first thing I looked for was the Chicago White Sox. But after that, I started looking in the database for ways to tell my story, so I looked for Gold, I looked for Swimming Pool, I looked for Film, because the database was fairly descriptive. Then I started making sequences of all the things that rhymed with each other: a series of sequences for all the newsreels that were world events—labor, suffragettes, races. Then there were ones for the narrative films—entrances, exits, wilderness, nature, interactions with decay. This sort of thing became my own database, my own stock library of this footage. So those were ways that I could then dive back into that pool when I needed to tell something: answer the telephone; writes a letter. They became their own dynamic sequences. It was sort of like making building blocks of things that would tell the [story], first from atoms, then into words, then into sentences.

DT: Did you have an organizing principle before you started creating the sequences, or did the organizing principle come from the sequences themselves?

Morrison: There was a timeline, sort of decade by decade and then within that year by year. It certainly is a more detailed and exacting timeline up until ’29, then it starts to leap by decades up to the discovery [of the collection in 1978], but the first half or two-thirds of the film I’m really structuring it year by year.

There’s an organizing principle that has been throughout all my work, and that’s the awareness that these are physical things that people needed to carry and store and that have the same qualities that any physical being has; they can decay, they’re heavy, they can be a nuisance, they can be flammable, in fact, they can be a danger. So what do we do with stuff?—that was one of the organizing principles. What do we do with the stuff that we accrue?

Unlike any of my other work, this has a real narrative arc to it, and it’s certainly the only strictly chronological piece I’ve built. But at the core of it it’s about an archaeological dig, so my idea was to start at the very surface, and that was the 2014 Major League baseball footage that begins the film. Then you dip down a little deeper to 1979 and then even deeper into the very beginning of nitrocellulose and the 1850s and back up to the Lumières and the 1890s. From there you sort of scale this mountain, if you will; like the 45-degree Chilkoot Pass, you’re going up to a point. Then there are many fluctuations with the town. It rises and falls many times, but it’s basically on a downward arc. Then there’s a moment where time sort of stops and it’s elasticized, and that’s the failed double play during the 1919 World Series, where it’s sort of a page out of Chris Marker’s La Jetée, if you will, where you’re looking at every frame for a couple of seconds and time is stretched and these frames are paintings. That comes right in the middle of the film, then it cascades on into the future and climbs out at 1978 and you’re back with your narrator again.

DT: Talk about the Dawson City Collection and how you came to be associated with it.

Morrison: I came to be associated purely out of interest. The story of the Dawson City Film Fund was something people used to talk about…at least in my circles, the archival circle.

DT: That’s an elite group.

Morrison: It became more elite. In the late ’80s and early ’90s this was a story. I didn’t realize that people had stopped talking about it, or at least stopped talking about it correctly or even remembered it. Now I realize that I was one of the youngest people who remembered it; nobody younger than me had even heard of it. The group that was older stopped talking about it, and I don’t know what to attribute that to. Sam Kula [founder and director of the film, sound and television archives in the National Archives of Canada] wrote a few pages in a compendium of essays called This Film Is Dangerous: A Celebration of Nitrate Film, but there was never any real scholarly book or even essay about it. There was certainly no film about it, and not too much was made of the films that were discovered.

My theory is that the story of the discovery almost eclipsed what the contents were. It was enough to say they found a bunch of films underneath an ice skating rink or in a swimming pool. I even heard someone in the Library of Congress tell CNN, “They found these films under a bowling alley.” I was like, Stop interview! Things get misconstrued and the details get dulled and it really somehow skipped a generation, so it was always a story I thought I could tell. It’s the type of story I like to tell, in that you can use the content of the story as the form. I come from painting, so the idea that the two things are equally visible has always been attractive to me. A lot of my films deal with that, making not just the film stuff visible but the viewership visible: You realize that you’re watching a film.

One day I was in Ottawa showing some of my films in a local theatre, the ByTowne, when the programmer said, “My day job is digital migration at the Library and Archives Canada.” I said, “So you have Dawson City.” He said, “Yeah, we also have a new 4K scanner.” I asked, “Can we move Dawson City to the front of your queue?” He said, “There is no queue, so yes.”

I realized I had an ally inside who had the wherewithal and the time to do these scans at a really outstanding level. I really couldn’t have made this film before that without making an enormous number of internegatives, which would have gone way beyond my means. The timing was perfect, and the programmer’s name is Paul Gordon, who is credited as an associate producer on this film. I would just say to Paul, “I need these titles,” and he could make the scan and give me a screener—eventually the high-res—so I was working with an online version all through the edit, which afforded me an enormous amount of flexibility.

DT: It’s a tautology to say that archival film makes a statement about the past. But here you make a very potent bridge to the present. Was that intentional? If so, how did you achieve that?

Morrison: I think any time I make a film, it’s a bridge to the present. I’m in the present; these are films that are coming from my perspective. Then pairing them very obviously with contemporary music is a reminder that you’re seeing it of this moment. I eschew any effort to use silent-movie music or anything that would historically contextualize it in that way. I’m not interested in that. My idea with Dawson City is that here is a microcosm, a town built at the cusp of the 20th century in a vacuum, so it came part and parcel with all the problems of the 20th century compacted into it: It became a sort of test-tube town. Tracing its rise and fall was in some ways a parable for our modern times. It was deep into the research that I realized that Frederick Trump had a brothel that serviced stampeders on their way to Dawson.

DT: Frederick was Donald Trump’s grandfather.

Morrison: His grandfather, an immigrant from Germany.

DT: Last name Drumpf.

Morrison: He had already called himself Trump at that point, but he was born Drumpf. He went back to Germany with all the money he earned in Canada, then he immigrated again, so maybe there’s something to keeping these immigrants out. I still didn’t want to use this guy’s name in my film; I thought he was a flash in the pan, if you will. I moved to New York in ’85, so as a New Yorker I grew up with him. He’s been in the headlines every year since I’ve been here. I never took him seriously, and even when I learned that factoid about his grandfather, Donald was one of twenty-two Republican candidates, or whatever it came out to be, and I just said I’m not going to pollute my film with his name. Later I thought: Well, he’s the Republican candidate…that’s good for this year anyway. I’m not ever considering he would win the election. Finally, well, I said, I guess he’s part of history now. So to answer your question, there were ways that the present time caught up with the film in ways I couldn’t have foreseen. I didn’t know how significant Frederick Drumpf being a brothel owner would be.

I think you also see in the idea of Manifest Destiny the disposability of the indigenous population and that land, as well as the privateering: the local source miners, the hundreds of thousands of guys who were elbow-to-elbow getting their own but forming a community, or a town anyway, and then that entire economic system being replaced overnight when the machines come in and they corporatize with no union, creating a company town. What happens to a town like that? You have an enormously stratified class system immediately, and the bottom drops out. By the time the ’20s rolled around, there were maybe a thousand people left, tumbleweed blowing through the town, and the main distraction was still the movies. That was the thing that kept people going.

DT: One of the shots you used depicted laborers hauling wheelbarrows up a wooden track. What that really struck home was the sense that these prospectors were suddenly turned into a labor pool, which is an entirely different animal: They came to be their own men and ended up as hired workers.

Morrison: The people who sold out left. I was just there a few months ago for the Dawson City International Short Film Festival—I was the opening-night film. It’s still like you’re back in a storybook land. I went into the casino and this guy with a huge gray beard and a felt hat was drinking whiskey at the bar. I said, “You look like a prospector,” and he said, “I am.” These guys still work in very much the same way. There was another young hotshot prospector who struck it big in zinc and silver twice before, and he was hired to come in to find the mother lode. He made seven core samples last year and he had three years to find the big lode of gold that all these little flakes are just the dandruff of.

DT: Still?

Morrison: Still. It’s still under there. He wants to hit it, and he said, “I’m going to be in the Mining Hall of Fame” as his eyeballs turned into big dollar signs. That’s still going on up there.

DT: Talk about working with your composer, Alex Somers.

Morrison: It was great. We hardly met. I met him backstage at a Sigur Rós concert in Ottawa, in March 2014. At the time I thought he and Jonsi were going to collaborate on this together. They made three tracks on a long weekend for me, about twenty-two minutes’ worth of music, and that really informed my rough cut. I worked with those three tracks and their 2009 release, Riceboy Sleeps.

DT: Had they seen any of the footage?

Morrison: Yeah, they came over to the house a few months later, and I showed it to them…they just loved the idea that there was all this film in a swimming pool. They recorded in the swimming pool. They were big Decasia fans—that’s how I came to be in touch with them. So I told them the story, and they created this bed of music using Riceboy Sleeps. That informed the timing and the edit of my rough cut.

Eventually Alex took over the project, and April of last year I was able to finally send him a rough cut. From that he started sending me back drafts of what he was thinking and brought his brother John Somers in to do the sound design. The sound design and the composition fit really well together, so I was really happy with what I was hearing. However, I felt like this is actually a tragic story, so I said we needed more cello, more strings. Basically what I was saying amounted to: This piece you’ve written here is really good, let’s expand that, let’s work with that as a theme. Alex was really responsive, and he understood what I said. I went through each cue and gave notes on it, sort of like a long Excel spreadsheet. The second draft was really much closer to what I wanted, and we worked back and forth until we got something that held together and held the piece together. He really gave it a great narrative arc.

DT: This is your longest film by far. Did you plan on this length, or was it due to the wealth of the material, and how did that affect the editing?

Morrison: It wasn’t intentional—it was due to the wealth of the material for sure, and I could have kept going. I had to lop off ten minutes about what happened after the collection got to Ottawa, because that’s a fascinating story too, and there are all kinds of events that rhyme with what you’ve already seen. The Orpheum, which burned down and was rebuilt four or five times, finally gets taken out by the 1979 flood, so the town’s recovering from the flood when the films are finally shown there. The Suitland Maryland National Archives fire also happens that spring and takes out an enormous amount of our nitrate heritage in one fire. Then these films are brought to that same compound, not the same vault, in Suitland as part of the Library of Congress’s property. So the story continues. There was just a great poetic ending when the military planes fly away with this material that started its life as military material, and that had to be the end.

I read that people feel it’s still too long, but for me it kept building. It’s about minutiae and it’s about detail, and I felt very strongly that when you come out of it you should feel like you’ve lived through the 20th century in a certain way: There should be this moment of, oh my God, so much happened, all these rolls contain so much, so when you see them as physical objects, each one of these containing a history, it should hit you like a wave. You’ve been overwhelmed by the minutiae and the detail of it.

DT: It’s totally overwhelming.

Morrison: That was intended. I didn’t want it to be an easily digestible film. I didn’t want it to be a History Channel film. I wanted it to be a film that you emerge from the theatre and say: Wow, where have I been?

DT: When you work deeply with anything, when you really go into it, you begin to see things that you wouldn’t see if you didn’t take that deep journey. You’ve spent your life working with archival footage and early films. What have you learned from your deep journey that someone who just sees a little snippet wouldn’t see, or someone who sees an occasional Charlie Chaplin movie wouldn’t see?

Morrison: I’m always looking for footage that’s self-reflexive in some way, that somehow draws attention to the fact that it’s film, whether it’s the content of the picture or what’s happening on the frame. I’m not sure somebody else would be attracted to the same thing. But I’m not sure my films are really for people who are silent-film fans per se. A Charlie Chaplin fan isn’t necessarily going to think my film is that interesting, while an early film fan would say: What’s all this—where’s Lionel Barrymore?

This collection has suffered from that, I think. Sam Kula said they came out looking for Theda Bara and Cleopatra, the idea that the great lost feature might be down there that could be restored. Of course, whatever might have been there in its entirety was no longer there, it was all reel one and reel two or reel five—it was all piecemeal. So again it was like the stampeder who came too late—the rich claims had been made.

I’m looking at film not from a cinephile’s perspective. I’m still looking at it from my perspective, a plastic art, something’s that’s lived through the world, and the picture has to reflect that. I don’t know if my experience in the archive is going to be informative for somebody else. I just followed my whims, and I’ve been lucky to have good friends on the inside of the archive, who save stuff for me, who don’t throw stuff away, show me where stuff might be buried.

DT: One of the things that struck me about Dawson City was the early film footage that you chose: You didn’t have a lot of stereotypically dramatic poses. In fact, the compositions you chose were very classical images. Timeless, and very beautiful.

Morrison: I think they’re beautiful too. That’s why I chose them. First of all, I was much more interested in the newsreel footage than in the narrative footage. The narrative footage served a purpose, usually to advance the story in some way, but there wasn’t a lot of fawning over the movie stars who are recognizable in the collection, and there’s half a dozen really famous people there.

I find there’s sort of a cheap shot you can make—how quaint silent film was, or that it didn’t reach the level of sophistication we have. Of course, there were a ton of narrative tropes that kept being repeated, like the listening at the door as a way of advancing a narrative, a secret in a silent movie, where it gives you this expositional moment. But there were ways of bringing attention to that without saying: This is silly.

DT: When you made this film, did you consciously balance your role as storyteller, as archivist, as historian, as defender of lost causes, or did that happen naturally?

Morrison: One thing I did: This is a much wordier film than I’ve ever made before. I’ve never had speaking parts in it, and there’s just an enormous amount of text. There was this idea that by telling a very detailed story, the more detailed I could make it, the more universal it would become. The first thing, though, was always going to be the hypnotic edit. The edit was going to follow my editing style, and it was going to have the same sort of elasticity. Then I was going to find a way to tell the story within that, the blank spaces in the frame.

Dawson City: Frozen Time opened today at New York’s IFC Center, with national rollout to follow from Kino Lorber. The author thanks Susan Norget, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview. This article is published here courtesy of Director TalkCopyright © Director Talk 2017