Dawson City / Frozen Time is a rhapsodic documentary made by Bill Morrison. Ostensibly about the history of gold mining town in the northern Yukon, the 2014 documentary has something of the flavor of one of Montaigne's essays -- it's digressive and, ultimately, considers a variety of topics, chief among them the ravages of time and the ruin that it makes of all things. The film is melancholy, but also very beautiful and, ultimately, stands for the proposition that certain images have magically passed through time's tempest and are retained as meaningful, perhaps, even somehow salvific.
Morrison is most famous for his film Decasia (a portmanteau title combining "decay" and "fantasia") -- that movie featured fragments of film on badly decayed nitrate stock: the images are dim and enigmatic and they cavort before us, coexisting magically with storms and raging torrents of decay -- the decomposition of the film stock adorns the images with flurries and mists of illegibility. Decasia is an avant-garde spectacle, without narration, and focuses on the ancient moving picture stock presenting us with two layers of image -- first there is the superficial foam and tide of decomposition, a waterfall pouring over the ancient images and, then, the images themselves, often curiously naïve, partially illegible, interacting in occult ways with the decomposition that besets them. Much of Dawson City has this same flavor: we see badly damaged film, beautiful deep focus images that are bracketed by vertical torrents of decay, a sort of pale, ghostly avalanche that pours down the sides of the pictures. (In one astonishing sequence, we see a man in an evening suit standing alone -- beside him the river of decay is passing although, now and then, we see the pale arm of a woman cast forth from the organic blur of rot running down the side of the picture.) Dawson City, however, is much more ambitious than Decasia. Morrison shows snippets of dozens of half-illegible film intercut with still images relating to the history of the gold rush city -- the still images are also supplemented by fragments of other documentaries and "bridge" shots of the Yukon as it looks today. Finally, Morrison scrupulously labels every bit of footage that he incorporates into the film -- he tells us the source of the images. (Some of it is home movies, documentaries by the Canadian Broadcast Company, people's private collections of pictures, even some interviews with talking heads, and, at the outset, a clip from a TV show -- we're surprised to see the avant-garde filmmaker on ESPN commenting on some of the footage recovered from the Dawson City perma-frost: the old movies retrieved there show the sole surviving moving images of several controversial plays in the 1919 World Series, a competition that was fixed by players on the Chicago White Sox. These images are not wholly unlike the way a Ken Burns' documentary is structured and, so, I will have to account for the fact that I think Morrison's Dawson City / Frozen Times is a masterpiece of film art while Burns' PBS films are interesting enough -- but, also in my view, fundamentally dishonest.
Dawson City starts out with a mystery. Why are there hundreds of reels of silent pictures buried in the perma-frost? The film is 120 minutes long, in effect, an epic about the history of the Yukon and the history of cinema. Morrison doesn't narrate but supplies us with many (probably several hundred) short and epigrammatic titles -- the letters are printed over the images that we are shown. (Unlike Burns, Morrison credits every single image -- he tells who made it and, if it's a film, what the film was called.) The gist of the narrative is that Dawson City was at the epicenter of the Yukon gold rush of 1898. The place was the real thing -- at first, people could pan enough gold in a couple of afternoons to become wealthy. But Dawson City was hard to reach -- prospectors had to sail to Skagway, Alaska and, then, hike over the icy Chilkoot Pass. (Chilkoot Pass is featured in Charlie Chaplin's iconic 1925 The Gold Rush, fragments of which are cut into the documentary -- it appears as a vertical stairway ascending an icy sluice in glacier with men climbing one after another up the 45 degree slope for several thousand feet: the great Yukon gold rush, with the Spanish American War, was one of the first historical events extensively filmed and, therefore, visually documented.) The local Indians at Dawson City were moved downstream 12 miles and, in a matter of weeks, 40,000 men swarmed into the sub-Arctic valley. Morrison shows the tent city, the brothels, the prostitutes, the mine works. Within a year or two, the easily harvested gold was all gone and the men went further north to a strike at Nome. The city collapsed. Then, the Guggenheim family bought the exhausted placer stakes and began an immense dredging operation -- this continued, under the ownership of various companies, until the gold was finally entirely played-out in 1966. At that point, the town began to promote itself as a tourist attraction and this is its status today. (The city has 1500 inhabitants today). Winters are long and dark in Dawson City and so the place always had movie theaters, as many as four for many years. Morrison shows the movie theaters, including the largest -- a big emporium in something called the DAAA (Dawson Amateur Athletic Association). The DAAA theater closed relatively early -- before the First World War. In the big building, there was a large swimming pool, a "natatorium" as such places then were called. That also failed and a hockey rink was built over the old swimming pool. The hockey players complained that the ice was uneven because of the swimming pool underneath and so it was decided to fill in the hole. Movies reached Dawson two to three years after being premiered in Hollywood and, after being shown in that remote city's theaters, the studios deemed it too expensive to ship the prints back to them -- the movies were already obsolete and, later, after sound pictures, silent and, therefore, doubly obsolescent. So the reels of film, accumulating to about five tons, were just stored in the basement of a Carnegie Library that had been burned and gutted a few years earlier. Some of the film was thrown in the river and, about two tons, were burned in a huge and spectacular bonfire -- the old nitrate film is made of the same stuff as nitroglycerine and it is dangerously unstable. (All of the major repositories of such films in the US have burned including disastrous fires at the Warner Brothers storage facility in 1977). The rest of the film was tossed into the old swimming pool with other garbage and covered up in the perma-frost. Kids skating on the hockey rink recalled that fragments of film would sometimes protrude through the ice. They would light these on fire and enjoy the explosive combustion. Gradually this history was forgotten. Then, sometime in the late 1970's, an excavation was commenced behind Diamond Gertie's Gambling Parlor -- the backhoe operator immediately encountered a huge trove of film rotting in crushed tin canisters. Archaeologists were summoned and ultimately 555 reels of the old nitrate film were salvaged -- hundreds of additional canisters may still be underground. It is this film that comprises the bulk of Morrison's movie -- interestingly, much of the film consists of Canadian Pathe newsreels documenting the history of Dawson and the Far North. Accordingly, Morrison is able to actually show Dawson with the footage excavated from the abandoned swimming pool. (His other great source of imagery is still photographs made by a man named Hegge who documented Dawson's growth and, then, diminution between 1898 and the mid-twenties.) Morrison uses the old, rotting film with great subtlety -- sometimes, the pictures are just atmospheric or used for their intrinsic ruinous glamor and poetry: in addition to this lyrical use of the old footage, Morrison sometimes can create elaborate mise-en-scene by stitching the found footage together -- for instance, when someone writes and sends a letter we see a montage from four or five films illustrating this process: the earnest furrowed brow, writing, depositing in the mail, mail carriers, the person receiving the letter and, then, reading it, again with earnest furrowed brow. There are many digressions in the film all of them fascinating: we learn about Grauman, an archetypal Jewish hustler, who made money in Dawson and, then, went south to build the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard; there's Pantages another theatrical entrepreneur, the story of the 1919 World Series, science and industry about the volatility of the old nitrate film stock, even Donald Trump gets a cameo -- his family fortune originates in the operation of a hotel midway between Skagway and Dawson City (the place was also a brothel); there is also a brief digression about Ken Burns and the source of his style in a Canadian documentary made in the fifties called City of Gold. Dawson City / Frozen Time is an extraordinary documentary, combining the narrative interest of a Ken Burns' film with the avant-garde lyricism of Morrison's Decasia -- it's slightly too long, I think, but nonetheless, highly recommended.