Film Review: Dawson City: Frozen Time

Bill Morrison's documentary, which takes off from the discovery of silent films buried in Canada's frozen Yukon territory, will interest both fans of silent cinema and historians.
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In 1978, backhoe operator Frank Barrett, part of a construction crew breaking ground for a recreation center in Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon region, uncovered a layer of debris that he recognized as a 35mm film cans. Barrett, also a Dawson City alderman, called a halt to digging; his intervention resulted in the preservation of more than 500 cans of silent-film footage—movies made in the first two decades of the 20th century—in an abandoned swimming pool beneath the permafrost. The cache included commercial newsreels, features and shorts. Isolated Dawson City was the last stop on the prints' distribution tour and they were never returned, as shipping was expensive—a not-uncommon occurrence in the early days of cinema, when movies were run until the prints disintegrated or audiences lost interest. Distributors were lackadaisical about retrieving touring prints because movies were seen as ephemeral entertainment with no long-term value—TV, video and DVDs (let alone streaming on demand) were the stuff of science-fiction stories.

The rescue of a treasure trove of old-timey material—some in excellent condition, some corroded but still eminently viewable—is a nice hook, and director Bill Morrison is quick to clarify what a marvel it is, in light of the historical lack of interest in preservation. The footage is all on nitrate stock, both revered for its shimmering black-and-white clarity and notorious for its well-documented propensity to burst into flames so fierce that even immersion in water won't put it out. A baseball fan, Morrison was personally thrilled to find footage of the notorious 1919 World Series that provides visual confirmation of the fix.

But rather than simply assembling a artistic clip reel like Dutch filmmaker Peter Delpeut's Lyrical Nitrate (1991) or his own 2002 Decasia, a meditation on the eerie beauty of deteriorating film images, Morrison focuses on weaving together found footage and an assortment of archival materials to tell the story of Dawson City itself, a town born of the Klondike gold rush that began in the mid-1890s when one George Carmack panned a tidy sum out of Rabbit Creek. Over the next decade, some 100,000 American and Canadian prospectors hoping to strike it rich tramped through an area previously inhabited by the First Nation Tr'ondëk Hwitch'in tribe.

Dawson City: Frozen Time runs a little long and Alex Somers' original score is more than a little heavy-handed—you don't need lowing strings to remind you that you're watching flickering glimpses of a past that was both harshly beautiful and just plain harsh. But true movie lovers will come away with a pair of new heroes in Michael Gates and Kathy Jones-Gates, local historians/journalists who spearheaded efforts to preserve the Dawson City films. While clearly not for all audiences, Morrison’s film should do solid business in art houses and secondary markets.

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