This Blu is a fascinating hybrid of experimental film and historical documentary by Bill Morrison of Decasia fame. Lost film history and the vanished era of the Dawson Gold Rush blend into one story — all touched off by the discovery of tons of rare silent film, buried in the cold ground of the Canadian Yukon. And Donald Trump’s in there too! In the show, not the snow.
Dawson City: Frozen Time
Kino Lorber Kino Classics
2017 / Color & B&W / 1:78 widescreen & 1:37 Silent Ap / 120 min. / Street Date October 31, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 34.95
Starring: Kathy Jones-Gates, Michael Gates, Sam Kula, Bill O’Farrell, Chris ‘Mad Dog’ Russo, Bill Morrison.
Film Editor: Bill Morrison
Researchers: Kathy Jones-Gates, Michael Gates
Original Music: Alex Somers; sound design John Somers
Produced by Bill Morrison and Madeleine Molyneaux
Written and Directed by Bill Morrison
Bill Morrison is the celebrated filmmaker of Decasia, a wonderful film meditation composed of roughly 67 minutes of badly decayed nitrate silent film. The blooms and blisters of the film damage soon become fascinating, as we try to discern the almost but-not-quite obliterated images left below. I also reviewed Morrison’s The Great Flood, a contemplative documentary using a surviving cache of silent film documenting a massive flooding in the Mississippi Valley.
Morrison’s new Dawson City: Frozen Time is Morrison’s most accessible achievement to date, as it has its feet firmly planted in two camps. It’s a committed conventional documentary about a fascinating chapter in history, and it also continues the Morrison style of found footage playing out against a backdrop of equally experimental music, in this case from American-born, Iceland-relocated composer Alex Somers, with a sound design assist from John Somers. From its starting point of a back-hoe unearthing a treasure trove of cinema’s past, literally buried in the ground, Frozen Time also has plenty to say about film heritage and the importance of film preservation — not simply owing to the list of films that were rescued, but showing its deep connection to our recent and not-so recent past.
The basic fact is that in 1978 an excavation found tons of film cans buried under a parking lot in Dawson City, Yukon. Morrison samples them along with other silent feature and newsreel footage, plus an amazing selection of archival stills, to tell the entire tale of Dawson City. The epic starts in 1897 when the Gold Rush was ignited, moves through the entire 20th century as the township swells and shrinks in population. A wild-west sin city slowly becomes something more permanent, leading to a present where only a few elderly survivors know much about what really happened.
Using clips from various silent films, Morrison augments the story of the Gold Rush of ’98, which was realistically depicted in Charlie Chaplin’s movie of the same name. As we see how countless thousands of prospectors swarmed into the Yukon, swelling Dawson City, clips from silent gems pop up. The most memorable clip is a scene from 1928’s The Trail of ’98 in which Dolores Del Rio plays with handfuls of gold nuggets — which are tinted bright orange! Archival photos show the conditions these men lived under, and the way the Dawson street-front bloomed like a weed, with saloons, theaters, and brothels springing up on a weekly basis. It’s impossible to keep count of how many times individual wooden buildings burn down and are rebuilt in a matter of weeks.
The story of Dawson is a microcosm of the settling of the west, minus agriculture, militarism, etc. Life can’t have been particularly easy for anyone living in tent cities, before civilization came to Dawson City. The Indians are moved out en masse and everything goes on a Free Market basis. We find out that, after a few gold millionaires are created, buying and selling to the prospectors is where the big money was made — selling plots of land with big dreams attached. Big companies eventually move in with factory mining operations that utterly destroy many square miles of land.
Morrison’s adapted-experimental docu style is extremely welcome. We haven’t seen anything new in the field since Ken Burns’s The Civil War slowed the pace and added actorly readings of documents and letters (and plaintive fiddle music). Morrison’s Dawson is pleasing to the eye and ear because most of the soundtrack is Alex Somers semi- music concrète stylings, augmented with hints of sound atmospheres. Although voiceovers intrude, the heavy lifting in the exposition of facts is handled through well-written text superimposed over the image. The pace is perfectly judged, so we never feel rushed reading. The titles never prevent us from taking in the fascinating archival photos.
We learn a lot, very quickly. Seemingly by 1910 the wild-town has tamed. The people who really profited were those that provided services to the earliest miners — food, provisions, booze, and entertainment. Hollywood’s Sid Grauman and Alexander Pantages got their starts putting on shows in Dawson. We’re told that an entrepreneur made money by buying out all the copies of the afternoon paper, and then charging men on the street to listen to a man reading the paper’s articles!
The ‘wild times’ in Dawson aren’t dwelled upon, but we do learn about various scams run against hapless prospectors, especially those that are sold worthless mining plots. Then comes the historical bombshell, two short sentences of text superimposed over a street scene:
“Fred Trump opened a brothel in Whitehorse, the Arctic Hotel and Restaurant.
This was the origins of Donald Trump’s Family Fortune.”
The documented articles I found online say that Fred Trumpf made most of his money flipping claims, buying low and selling high. Dawson City’s assertion is repeated plenty of places online, but most documented accounts stop short of calling Fred Trumpf an actual pimp or procurer. But he was deported from Germany for being a draft dodger!
The cinema history angle is crucial to this story. Dawson City: Frozen Time also tells the story of the town’s movie theaters, which remained busy even after the rush died down — never was there a more captive audience. But the nitrate film ignited so easily that theaters burned down even more frequently than other buildings. The amazing story of the silent nitrate treasure trove came about through a strange series of events. In the ‘teens and ‘twenties, Dawson was the end of the line for the film distribution network. Film prints arrived there long after they’d played out elsewhere, often two or three years after release. No longer considered of value, and too expensive to ship back, they were usually ordered destroyed. But tons of films in their shipping cans were instead stored in a library building abandoned because of a partial fire. Later on in the 1920s, an ice skating rink was rebuilt to remove a swimming pool underneath, which had caused a bulge in the ice surface. The locals solved two problems at the same time — they filled in much of the pool excavation by carting the tons of abandoned films across the street and throwing them in the hole. There they stayed, eventually forgotten, until the backhoe unearthed them in 1978.
Canadian cultural officials rescued the pictures, saving many. Although plenty have Decasia- like damage some are in great shape. Of course, many titles are only partial rescues. Clips show a wide range of film from about 1914 to 1925, features and newsreels alike. One newsreel clip presents lost footage of the 1919 World Series, the one marred by the Black Sox betting scandal.
Morrison thankfully adds titles explaining when each film was made, and when it was shown in Dawson. It’s a cross-section of an entire silent film heritage that was mostly lost, if not due to accidental vault fires, then purposely destroyed by the studios. One scene offers documentation of a company destroying its entire collection of silent film simply because sound has arrived, and the old movies are worthless.
If this sounds absurd, it needs to be known that Hollywood studios had much the same attitude until the arrival of home video. The notion of government subsidized film conservation is still not fully accepted.
The clips are great, although I didn’t recognize any major coveted lost classics popping through. We do spot some major stars, like Mae Marsh, in the still image below. That’s not the right attitude to take, as any recovered film should be considered a treasure. Morrison organizes the clips in agreeable avant-garde fashion, with various montages of sample scenes organized by similar content — people talking on the phone or walking up stairs or coming through doorways. Thus a western is intercut with a tense serial and a silent comedy.
Dawson City: Frozen Time works because it offers docu content to go with Morrison’s artistic manipulation of found film clips. It’s good that what we see is so well identified; we can discern which film clips were dug up out of the permafrost, and which are from other sources. Even Godfrey Reggio’s Powaqqatsi can be frustrating when we aren’t sure if a specific image we see is from Africa, South America, or India. Mr. Morrison will surely proceed with more and varied abstract film experiments, but we appreciate this illuminating, beautiful documentary hybrid.
The Kino Lorber Kino Classics Blu-ray of Dawson City: Frozen Time is a terrific HD encoding of this fascinating show. With the help of Canadian film authorities and the Museum of Modern Art, the newsreel and historical film helping to illustrate the show is encoded in excellent shape. The rescued film clips of course cover a wide range of quality, from fairly clean to barely viewable. Clearly a boon to Morrison’s art is the fact that the newest film scanners can be made to scan movie film that would never go through a projector, even mangled film missing its perforations.
Topping the extras is an ‘extra’ docu reel, which works well as an epilogue to explain how Frozen Time came together. We see its premiere — in Dawson City. Bill Morrison also sits for an illuminating interview.
Of special interest is a gallery of sample reels from the rescued films, a variety of pictures. I immediately gravitated toward a serial-like crime excerpt from director Tod Browning. A lady thief robs a dinner party at gunpoint. A car chase ensues. It looks pretty good.
In addition to a feature trailer, the disc package contains an illustrated insert booklet with two essays about the find. The disc producers are Kino’s Bret Wood and Robert Sweeney.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Dawson City: Frozen Time
Supplements: Interview with Bill Morrison, selection of original Dawson City Find film reels, ‘postscript’ docu epilogue, trailer, Insert pamphlet with essays by Lawrence Weschler and Alberto Zambenedetti.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 26, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson