Film

An Avant-Garde Documentary About 500 Silent Films Rescued in the Yukon

Bill Morrison’s newest work, Dawson City: Frozen Time, tells the story of an unlikely triumph for film preservation and history.

Front Street, Dawson City, circa 1897–98 (still from Dawson City: Frozen Time)

Bill Morrison does not bring his viewer found footage. What he does is more like guiding you through the back streets of an old city, through an alley whose entrance you never would have discerned on your own. Down the alley, he pulls back the curtain of a window. It cannot open. It should show the inside of the building but instead, through frost and dirt and fog, you can see another world — or the past. Or both. Diving into the world’s cinematic archives for the rarest excerpts of forgotten films, Morrison recombines them to tell new stories, or arranges them into a portrait of their time.

Most news about film preservation concentrates on the new restorations of classics or undiscovered gems. Morrison works with seemingly unsalvageable material, with home movies, with orphaned reels of otherwise lost works. His films are singular, soulful meditations on impermanence, mortality, and memory.

Morrison’s newest film is Dawson City: Frozen Time, a documentary about an unlikely triumph for film preservation and history. The titular Yukon town, an early focal point of the Klondike gold rush, exploded in population from 500 to around 40,000 in the 1890s. All manner of entertainment venues were set up to service the miners flocking to Dawson City — gambling dens, dance halls, and theaters for then-new motion pictures. Isolated as it was, the city was the end of a distribution line for theatrical runs: Its movie theaters there would get the “latest” Hollywood films two or three years after they originally came out, and since it was considered too costly to have the reels shipped back to the studios, Dawson proprietors were instructed to burn them. But they didn’t. Instead, hundreds of reels were put into storage, and eventually they were used to fill in a swimming pool so that an ice hockey rink could be installed over it. There they lay, in permafrost, for decades before being excavated — a very different kind of buried treasure from that which built the city in the first place. More than 500 silent film reels that were thought gone could live again.

A chunk of film reel excavated from the demolished Dawson Amateur Athletic Association, the burial ground for more than 500 silent films (still from Dawson City: Frozen Time)

Morrison tells this story using few documentary conventions, eschewing voiceovers and most interviews and relying almost entirely on film and photographic elements from the period. In addition to these primary sources, he incorporates the entertainment of the time. Chaplin’s The Gold Rush illustrates turn-of-the-century conditions, augmented by Eric Hegg’s astonishing photographs. Recreation lives alongside witness. The meta-presentation deepens as Morrison uses snippets of the actual films discovered in Dawson City to explain the times. After bringing us into this locale, we are then put into the seats of the city residents, for whom the movies were a pipeline of information about a world far, far away. Morrison covers the 1919 Black Sox scandal and 1920s labor struggles, tying their underlying issues of capitalistic exploitation back to the devastation of the Klondike by mining companies, as well as the pitiless pragmatism of the movie studios.

Frozen Time emphasizes that despite its remoteness, Dawson City was in fact intimately tied to the wider world. The Klondike was where Fred Trump first made his fortune in hospitality. Dawson City was where future movie theater magnate Sid Grauman, then a newsboy, learned to be a showman. Impresario Alexander Pantages opened his first theater there. And then the place was forgotten, its population dwindling to less than a thousand just a few years after the boom. But the movies kept coming, eventually waiting to be rediscovered — suspended in a quantum state of existence, unobserved and unknown.

Previously lost footage of the 1919 World Series found in Dawson City (still from Dawson City: Frozen Time)

Morrison’s scope includes the very origin of film. Movies are the misbegotten children of war. Photographic film stock was first created by combining camphor with nitrocellulose, or “guncotton,” an extremely flammable substance that made for a powerful blasting agent. From the time motion pictures began until the middle of the 20th century, they were captured on nitrate film, and we still speak of movie images “on celluloid,” even though few are shot on physical film now. The combustibility of nitrate led to many a fire, and that combined with film studios’ careless attitude toward the long-term prospects of their work (it was policy to trash most film reels after their theatrical runs, even popular ones), brings us to the precarious modern state of film preservation. Half of all movies made before 1950 have been lost, as well as around 75 percent of all silent films. Occasionally there are miracle stories of discovery like Dawson City’s. Those become less and less frequent as time goes on.

Still from Decasia, in which a boxer’s opponent is now obscured by the degradation of the celluloid

Celluloid is a malleable substance, and film strips stored improperly will warp, melt, fade, or rot (or, of course, burst into flame if they’re nitrate). The material can be put to a variety of uses beyond the photographic: made into toys or tools or furnishings. During World War I, the French army took Georges Méliès’ films and melted them down into boot heels — bringing the nitrate full circle, back to war.

In carefully molding these relics, Morrison is less a traditional filmmaker than he is a sculptor. Film is an art form made of light, and what’s generally considered to be skillful filmmaking conceals the process of generating that light. Instead, Morrison fleshes out its underlying physicality. He takes the old material as it is, warts (or cigarette burns) and all. The slow-moving, warped, scratched images seem emulsified in scotoma.

Still from Light Is Calling, appropriated from 1926’s The Bells

Morrison frequently collaborates with musicians specializing in dissonant, even atonal compositions, which enhances his works’ otherworldly feel. For his masterpiece, Decasia, which is the first film released in the 21st century to be inducted into the Library of Congress National Film Registry, he edited badly degraded silent footage from numerous films (only two of which have been identified) into an avant-garde meditation on ephemerality. The short “Light Is Calling” takes scenes from 1926’s The Bells and turns a love story into a ghost story. Spark of Being adapts Frankenstein via found materials from other films — an elegant thematic recursion. The Miners’ Hymns reconstructs the daily life of British coal workers via archival materials, and The Great Flood does the same for migrating sharecroppers in 1920s Mississippi.

Cinephiles frequently compare movies to dreams. Morrison’s movies feel like half-remembered reveries formed from memories you can no longer consciously recall. Hovering at the intersection of reappropriation, preservation, history, music, and art, any one of his works will haunt you for the rest of your life. Dawson City: Frozen Time is no exception.

Dawson City: Frozen Time will be released in New York on June 9, and Los Angeles, San Diego, and Chicago on June 16.

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