BILL MORRISON’S DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME is the best new movie in town and the best movie of the year thus far. Though its title would suggest a focus on the mysterious fate of a little-known city, Morrison’s latest output actually functions on several planes and tells many stories, all of which spring from the accidental discovery in 1978 of hundreds of 35-mm film reels, decades after they served as landfill in a subarctic swimming pool: yet another bizarre reason that 75 percent of all silent films are lost.
In fact, these films were buried for a number of reasons. Two years past their initial release, they were no longer marketable to their distributors and were hazardous to store. All silent films had a nitrate base and were highly flammable, which accounts for why hundreds had already been dumped in the Yukon River—a fact that makes the films unearthed in 1978 a drop in the bucket. In addition, the city also wanted to provide a better ice rink for hockey games.
Less than two hundred miles from the Arctic Circle, Dawson became the center of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896–97, which drew one hundred thousand prospectors to the region—forcing out the indigenous people who lived there for millennia—until the craze shifted to Alaska in 1899, taking with it a quarter of Dawson’s population. The town’s rise and fall is at the heart of Morrison’s movie, but even while Dawson’s importance faded, it unsuspectingly harbored another gold mine and another story—as a site where 372 films were unwittingly preserved from the fire, neglect, and nitrate decay that destroyed all other copies. Morrison’s movie includes clips from films by such major directors as D. W. Griffith, Maurice Tourneur, Tod Browning, Allan Dwan, Jack Conway, Lois Weber, and Alice Guy-Blaché, as well as footage from Thomas Edison’s studios.
Morrison uses a host of still images to tell the story, including astonishing iconic photographs of city life and of prospectors making their way through Chilkoot Pass—images we see in Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925). Many of these shots were taken by Eric Hegg, who opened a shop in Dawson during its boom and then exited in 1899, leaving behind thousands of glass-plate negatives that were published years later. These beautiful images are often scanned by the camera, in the familiar, underrated manner of Ken Burns’s best work, and are enhanced by the sustained ethereal tones of Alex Somers’s music.
One of the ironies and formal strategies of the movie, however, is Morrison’s “narrative reconstruction” of Dawson’s history through craftily edited excerpts from the movies’ fictional narratives as well as newsreels—most of them made between 1899 and 1921. No stranger to the transformative power of found early film, Morrison demonstrated his passion for decomposing celluloid in Decasia (2002), a mesmerizing fever dream comprising films in varying states of decay edited into a “narrative” about mortality. In an act of supreme irony, Decasia was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2013, the first film of the new century to be so privileged.
Following suit in his new work, Morrison edits the films, in comparable states of decay, into sequences that dramatize the social dynamics of the town. For example, to illustrate the population’s obsession with gambling, he excerpts scenes depicting the activity from eight different films (all shot between 1899 and 1919), cleverly cutting from one to the next to suggest dramatic continuity, increasing tension, and even parallel gestures. These come to a climax with a dramatic scene from Clarence Brown’s The Trail of ’98 (1928)—based on a legendary novel of the gold rush—in which a distraught woman (Dolores del Río), weighing gold in both palms, laughs hysterically while mockingly contrasting its value to her unhappiness. The frenzied footage that follows nails Morrison’s point—that many who were lured to the Klondike came to a tragic end. Indeed, of the hundred thousand people who initially set out for gold, seventy thousand turned back or perished. Chaplin’s film didn’t tell the whole story.
Morrison’s approach confirms not only that most fiction films, especially from Hollywood, followed often interchangeable conventions and patterns, but that such patterns illustrated equally predictable and consistent aspects of human behavior. The lust for gold comes off as merely the outward sign of the craven nature, unruly passions, and hopeless dreams that have always destroyed people’s lives.
Peppered throughout are glimpses of people who became huge celebrities years later: a newsboy named Sid Grauman went on to build Grauman’s Egyptian and Chinese Theaters in Hollywood; Alex Pantages, who with his partner, Kate, built Dawson’s Orpheum Theater, became one of the first movie tycoons in America. His Pantages Theater was where the Oscars were held. We learn that a man named Fred Trump opened the Arctic Hotel, a brothel-cum-bar-cum-restaurant in neighboring Whitehorse. William Desmond Taylor was a timekeeper on a dredge for the Yukon Gold Company (owned by the Guggenheim brothers) before he became one of Hollywood’s most successful filmmakers, acting in or directing sixty films before he was, it is alleged, murdered in 1922.
There is also remarkable newsreel footage of various fronts in World War I: of women making hand grenades in factories; of hundreds of Americans marching to stop violence against African Americans; of New York mayor Jimmy Walker introducing “talkies”; and of the country’s deportation of social “undesirables,” among them anarchist activist Emma Goldman. Morrison also found footage thought not to exist of the 1919 World Series, during which players for the Chicago White Sox were bribed by New York gamblers to throw the game.
Even in its decline, Dawson remained the final stop for a film distribution chain from 1902 until well into the 1920s. Movies were shown at the beloved Amateur Athletic Association and in theaters originally designed for live entertainment. Year after year, a percentage of these establishments burned down along with much of Dawson’s business district, but they were almost all rebuilt. Little by little, though, such venues were demolished. When the town’s last surviving theater—successively known as the Opera House, the Palace Grand, the Savoy, and the Nugget—was finally torn down in 1961, it was observed that a line of gold dust had settled just under where the bar had stood.
Of the many ironic motifs that weave, explicitly or implicitly, through Dawson City: Frozen Time—the contrast of fire and ice; the lust for gold recorded by a silver-coated medium—one goes unacknowledged: that the 35-mm films discovered and excerpted will probably never be seen in their original state, except by archivists, not only because of their vulnerability, but also because we live in the digital age—a fact reflected by Morrison’s movie, which is itself not film.
As a result, the very qualities that Decasia both celebrated and bemoaned—the pulsing rhythms of decomposition in progress and the intermittent flares that mark decaying celluloid—are here reduced to an icy sharpness more akin to the element that preserved the films until their day of resurrection than to the warmth of fire that threatened their survival.
Clearly sensitive to these realities, Morrison’s final excerpt is a scene from The Salamander (1916), which tells of a mythical creature believed by the ancients to be capable of surviving fire unscorched. As we watch a woman incarnating this figure, dancing, we note how her undulations cleverly avoid the crackling white flares that have damaged the celluloid while she also artfully moves amid them as if they, too, were uncannily animated by a dance of death.
Dawson City: Frozen Time opens Friday, June 9, at the IFC Center in New York.