Within the first five minutes of Bill Morrison’s latest exploration into tactile film history, these words are displayed on the screen: “Film was born of an explosive.” This sounds beautifully metaphorical, but it is in fact just a straightforward statement about the chemical compounds of original film stock made of cellulose nitrate. By now the highly flammable nature of old film (pre-1949 or so) is no secret. As early as 1897, the Bazar de la Charité burned down in Paris after a film reel ignited, taking 126 lives–this was only one of the first major fires caused by film. Another example that Morrison’s movie points out is Thomas Edison’s film plant in New Jersey, which just spontaneously exploded one day in 1914. Dawson City: Frozen Time gives viewers an in depth look at early film as both an object in and of itself and a transmitter of the images it holds.
Bill Morrison is an experimental filmmaker who does not necessarily fall into the categories of horror or cult film, but it seems fitting to write about his films in Diabolique because there is always a haunted quality to the work. The humans and other figures excavated from nearly “dead” motion pictures are in some ways ghosts. Much can be said on and around this subject and many a scholar have tipped a hat to the ghostly qualities that movies hold, from Paolo Cherchi Usai in The Death of Cinema, to Mary Anne Doane in The Emergence of Cinematic Time. Morrison, along with perhaps Guy Maddin, is one of the most noted filmmakers regarding this end of the historical spectrum. Up until now, one of his more notable works is Decasia (2002), which captures the poetry of decay, a bit of necro-cinephilia that is captivating via the spontaneity of film wasting away, as much as what the filmmaker chooses to cut together. Another Morrison film directly related to horror or fantasy-based work is the short, 16-minute film The Mesmerist (2003), which manipulates film stock wasting away while showing footage of Boris Karloff and Lionel Barrymore. Dawson City: Frozen Time uses archival footage as the basis for a wonderful spectacle of seemingly lost film much like the director’s above-noted earlier work, but uses it in conjunction with a historical narrative that fastens everything together.
The documentary is captivating even with no voiceover, only words in screen telling the story of the titular city, over beautiful and haunting historic imagery. Dawson City is a small Canadian town borne of the Klondike Gold Rush, saturated by the corruption of casinos in a matter of years, and eventually left to become a sleepy little hamlet of close knit community members. The film centers around The Dawson Amateur Athletic Association (D.A.A.A.), among a few other specific locales. The late-19th century unfolding of Dawson City begins and matures very much at the same time as film history itself. Bit players in the history of the area are mentioned although they are very much footnotes to the larger gem: Fatty Arbuckle, William Desmond Taylor, Jack London, Alexander Pantages, Sid Grauman, and some Guggenheims thrown in for good measure. Meanwhile, a ways down the road from Dawson City was a brothel in Whitehorse, the origins of Donald Trump’s family fortune.
The true wonder of Dawson City: Frozen Time, however, is the story of the D.A.A.A. and nearby Orpheum Theatre needing to destroy the films that came into the town in the late 1920’s. It is a long story best told by the movie itself, but in a nutshell, Dawson City was the end of the line for film distribution in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Distribution companies didn’t want to pay for return of their product, and the D.A.A.A’s space was at capacity, so they filled a former swimming pool with hundreds–if not thousands–of film cans. The Orpheum took a similar route by dumping literally tons of film into the Yukon River.
Fifty years later… these films were found. Intended to be destroyed, many of the films were highly preserved in the Canadian permafrost underground. Close to 400 movie titles thought to be lost over time were suddenly rediscovered by some randos digging under ground. It is difficult for me to gauge how this kind of story would affect the average viewer, but to a person who loves cinema more than almost anything else in the world, Dawson City: Frozen Time tells an unbelievable, tear-jerking true story. The musical score by Sigur Rós collaborator Alex Somers certainly helps along the sentimental feelings.
Imagine finding lost history under your feet. Some people find dinosaur fossils, others find surprisingly preserved cans of film that not only say something about the location they are found in, but also the greater culture that produced them. Kino Video has just released a blu ray edition of Bill Morrison’s documentary, and Dawson City: Frozen Time is an absolute must see for lovers of film, history, and (media) archeology. It includes extras on the disc such as an interview with the director and uncut film reels from Dawson City. Essays by Lawrence Weschler and Alberto Zambenedetti come in an accompanying booklet. This story of a town built of the Klondike Gold Rush and then rounded out over the years to a population of about 1,000, is unexpected and remarkable.