Dawson City: Frozen Time

Cast: Bill Morrison, Kathy Jones-Gates, Sam Kula, Michael Gates, Bill O' Farrell

Director: Bill Morrison

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

Dawson City poster for web.jpg

Bill Morrison's documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time doubles as both historical record and symbolic encapsulation of modernity. It tells an extraordinary story; the 1978 discovery of over 500 nitrate film prints dating from 1910 to 1920, and links that discovery with the Klondike Gold Rush, a seminal event which essentially invented contemporary capitalism. Morrison unfurls a dense amount of information using a combination of stunning still photographs and selections from the rediscovered silent films. The results are haunting, vivid, and staggering; like unearthing ghosts of long-forgotten souls toiling for the American Dream who unwittingly birthed the cinematic image.

There's often a romanticism associated with the silent era, evoked as homage in films like Oscar-winning The Artist, but Dawson City: Frozen Time understands the suppressed society from which cinema sprang forth. The Gold Rush provided the foundation for modern American culture, with the likes of Friedrich Trump (yes that Trump) making a fortune opening a brothel, and figures like Jack London, Alexander Pantages, Fatty Arbuckle, and William Desmond Taylor becoming regular fixtures in Dawson City. As an astute essayist, Morris reveals this not by entertaining talking head interviews (there's only one in the entire film), but instead, by relying on sound, image, and onscreen text in order to bring his subject matter to life. What transpires here is disturbing-- the massive loss of life as would-be hopefuls attempted to strike it rich and the damage wrought by exploding nitrate film stock--as well as poetic, with Morris unveiling key scenes from long-lost silent pictures. By cross-cutting moments from rediscovered films like The Half Breed, The Female of the Species, and The Hidden Scar, Morris tellingly points to the racism, sexism, and class divisions inherent within the formation of American society.  Much of this footage is scratched or damaged, adding to the mythic feeling of peeking behind the curtain, which is accentuated by Alex Somers's hypnotic score.

As financial pressures mounted with the advent of "talkies", the powers that be were forced to either burn hundreds of silent movies or toss them inside a large swimming pool, which was later turned into a skating rink. The 1978 discovery is less about the films themselves (which consist mostly of melodramas, westerns, and comedies) and has more to do with what the films tell us about history. Even when Morrison seemingly goes off-course; zeroing in on the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, where miners were gunned down by Colorado National Guardsmen for participating in labor protests, and the 1919 World Series scandal where players took bribes to throw games, everything inevitably circles back to frontier capitalism and memories lost in the fire. The fact that the original nitrate stock was so dangerous as to explode at any given moment speaks to the ways in which innovation and careless greed often become intertwined. If anything, Dawson City: Frozen Time is a cautionary tale about humanity's drive for fame and wealth at the expense of artistic purity.

Like the artifacts it's obsessed with, Morrison's film is also an act of transcendent obsession; ambitiously mounted, painstakingly researched, and edited with delicate grace. If we can learn anything from history, it's that emotions such as joy, delight, heartbreak, and unspeakable loss can be captured and preserved through the power of flammable celluloid. Dawson City: Frozen Time is, therefore, an act of preservation with the full knowledge that time decays all things, imploring us to look closer at the faces eroding at the edges of a burning reel. There, in between dust and flickering light, we may see a larger narrative of 20th century political and cultural history, illuminating the ways in which we choose to process stories through the power of cinematic language.