For those who know the work of avant-garde documentary filmmaker Bill Morrison well, the first few minutes of his latest (and, significantly, longest) opus, Dawson City: Frozen Time, may shock in how formally conventional it is. It opens with a brief clip from an appearance Morrison himself made on Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo’s MLB Network talk show High Heat. After a few snippets of archival footage, it cuts to an interview Morrison conducted with two film archivists, Michael Gates and his wife Kathy—both of whom, in 1978, discovered the nitrate film reels in Dawson City, Canada, that are the focus of this film. As a result, this prologue feels like the straightest Morrison has ever played the nonfiction game. Is it possible that the filmmaker who made Decasia (2002), a 70-minute assemblage of decaying film footage in which all of the extremely visible print flaws essentially became the film’s raison d’être, has for once decided to make a conventional talking-heads documentary?
Not exactly, it turns out. It can be said, though, that Dawson City: Frozen Time sees Morrison working in a more accessible vein than in previous features like Decasia, The Miners’ Hymns (2010) and The Great Flood (2012). His new film is as much a collection of archival footage as those earlier films were, and like those films, it’s scored to a contemporary soundtrack (this one written by Alex Somers). But instead of making the viewer work to make visual and thematic connections based on the footage he presents, this time he includes a preponderance of on-screen titles that give the film the feel of an annotated slideshow—or, more appropriately given the film’s subject, that of a silent movie with intertitles etched onto the images themselves. Morrison also includes a lot of still photographs in the film, the camera panning over them and/or zooming in and out in ways similar to many Ken Burns documentaries.
In essence, Dawson City: Frozen Time plays like a feature-length history lesson. That is hardly a criticism, though, when the history is as compelling as it is here. From its humble beginnings as a hunting and fishing village for a nomadic First Nation tribe, Dawson City rose briefly to prominence thanks to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896, but then plummeted in renown once the rush ended in 1899 and prospectors migrated elsewhere, reducing its population from approximately 40,000 to about 1,000. 1896 was also the year that commercial cinema was basically invented, with the creation of film projectors and the development of movie theaters. These two threads eventually converged in a dilemma for Dawson City officials, as films that were shipped there for exhibition accumulated over time as studios rarely, if ever, asked them to be returned. While many of the prints—all of them made out of nitrate, highly flammable material—burned up in fires, others were simply dumped into the Yukon River, while 533 reels were stored in the basement of the Carnegie Library. In 1929, one official decided to move all those films in the Carnegie Library to a spot underneath what would eventually become a hockey rink, thus unknowingly providing the permafrost cover necessary to ensure their survival and eventual rediscovery in 1978, even as the athletic center that housed the rink burned to the ground in 1951.
Morrison’s fascination with those surviving nitrate reels is certainly in keeping with his general fascination with film history, as evinced by his previous work. But Dawson City: Frozen Time also reminds us that Morrison has never been just a vintage-cinema enthusiast. The Miners’ Hymns, especially, coursed with a working-class empathy that stirringly came to the fore in its final section, with archival footage of coal miners marching into a church in union solidarity, illustrated with blazing brass fanfares in Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score. Similarly, Dawson City: Frozen Time isn’t just about film history, but also about the history of this particular town—especially its struggles to stay afloat after the Gold Rush ended—and how that history reflected the history of the world around it (artistic and economic luminaries ranging from Jack London and Fatty Arbuckle, to Sid Grauman and Daniel & Solomon Guggenheim are all noted as having passed through Dawson City in some way).
Ultimately, though, the heart of Morrison’s film lies in that unearthed nitrate footage, and what he shows of it is often astonishing. Clips of lost silent films are one thing, but images of Fatty Arbuckle playing Dawson City stages, and even footage of the crucial play that led to the 1919 Black Sox scandal are quite another. As impressively exhaustive as it is as a work of history, Dawson City: Frozen Time plays even more affectingly as Morrison’s most direct love letter to cinema: as a tool not only for recording history, but also for capturing between-the-lines truths that history books can only graze. That nitrate footage unearthed below a hockey rink in Dawson City, on a broader level, stands as a testament to the potential of art to weather and endure the ravages of time.
Director: Bill Morrison
Writer: Bill Morrison
Starring: Michael Gates, Kathy Jones-Gates, Sam Kula, Bill O’Farrell, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, Bill Morrison
Release Date: June 9, 2017
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.