Review--Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)


Filmmaker Bill Morrison's Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016) drifts through the past with bittersweet grace. To attempt to describe it as a documentary is to limit the extent of its creativity. It does document the ebb and flow of life in a Yukon Territory gold rush town, but with a paint brush instead of a pencil.

The film tells two parallel stories: that of the busy and dramatically fluid history of Dawson City and of the cache of hundreds nitrate films discovered beneath the town's hockey rink. Battered excerpts from these silent discoveries, many of them thought long lost, are juxtaposed with the images of the town as it grew, thrived and faded through the years.

Dawson City is essentially a silent film, which is fitting given the vintage of the reclaimed nitrate. With Alex Somers' low-key, elegiac score as background, film clips and moving shots of photos from the town's past are allowed to speak for themselves, with text added as necessary to fill in the details. The collage of images fill in pieces of the story at a languid pace, matching the times it describes.

The town was home to many famous faces over the years, including some who would find fame in Hollywood. Theater owner Sid Grauman was a newsboy there and Marjorie Rambeaux, William Desmond and writer Wilson Mizner all had their impact on Dawson as well. There's even a photo of Charlie Chaplin, there to do location filming for The Gold Rush (1925).

Taking in the whole story of the Dawson film discovery evokes simultaneous feelings of delight and loss. The town was the end of the road for hundreds of silent films during the early days of the industry. It was expensive to ship prints and studios didn't want the battered reels once they had completed their run.

So the films were stored, until they took up too much space. Then hundreds of them were thrown in the river, while another massive pile was burned. Miraculously, over 500 more reels were saved when they were used to fill in the town swimming pool, so that putting a temporary top over it would no longer be necessary for hockey season.

There the films were preserved for decades, and many of the townspeople knew they were there, unaware of their value. Sometimes bits of nitrate would poke out of the ice and kids would set them on fire for fun. The importance of what lay under the ice was not fully understood until they were discovered by an outside party who felt such a stash deserved a better fate.

I haven't seen Morrison's 2002 tribute to the beauty of decomposing film, Decasia, but I hear fans of that film will appreciate a similar style here. This is a must see for anyone interested in film restoration and recovery. It is a mesmerizing, mysterious and deliberate work.

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