Dawson City: Frozen Time stands out as a marvelous metaphorical nesting doll, using its found footage format to anchor a series of dazzling figurative tangents.
In 1978, construction workers digging out a foundation in Dawson City made a surprising discovery, unearthing hundreds of reels of ancient nitrate film stock buried beneath layers of permafrost. Gnarled and water-damaged but otherwise preserved, these were the remains of movies screened at local cinemas during the early 20th century, a time when this Yukon city was remote enough for distributors to not bother paying to have them shipped back. They instead settled for an agreement that the cinemas wouldn’t screen them past the contracted original run, and the highly flammable discards were then housed in an empty swimming pool in a nearby rec center, which was eventually iced over by a hockey rink, then a final layer of asphalt as the center was demolished to make way for a parking lot. Now, roughly a hundred years after much of this material was originally circulated, veteran documentarian, conservator and antique avant-gardist Bill Morrison re-purposes this priceless footage, using it to tell the story of its own entombment and subsequent return to the light.
Located at the far fringes of Canadian territory, just across the Alaskan border, Dawson City is a Klondike outpost remembered mostly as a marginal historical footnote, essential to the development of the 1890s gold rush but largely forgotten afterward. As this film demonstrates, however, that time in the limelight was a significant one, with a parade of famous personages filtering their way through the town, many of them (from future theater tycoon Sid Grauman to Donald Trump’s grandfather Fred) young strivers on their way to untold riches. Such a path toward success is mirrored by the downward descent of the burg itself, which went from boom to bust in rapid succession, now preserved as a kind of sparsely populated living memorial to its fin-de-siècle glory.
It’s also a place that sprung up around the same time as film itself and bears an early history with striking parallels to that of the medium, albeit one that veered off precipitously after their first few years of existence. Perhaps the perfect person to dig into this trove, Morrison uses footage culled from these 500 found films – many of them thought to have been forever lost to time – as archival material, shaping a story about the form’s entwined relationship with economics, ethnicity and social structure and the people involved in determining the function of all three. A long-time revivifier of silent-era media, the director again seeks a renewed connection to this lost world by himself working in a voice-less mode, with only Alex Somers’ stunning soundtrack as accompaniment. Equally enamored with restoration and decay, he lovingly resurrects and recontexualizes these distorted images, many of them warped around the edges or marred with strange, shifting blobs.
Possessing an inherent, inscrutable beauty, these scars also serve as an estranging device, reminding us of the gulf of time between modern viewers and the long-lost people who both participated in and enjoyed these films. This grants a surprising poignancy to often frivolous images, the stately character imparted by death pushed to the artistic extreme Morrison previously exploited in quiet-yet-grandiose works like Decasia and The Miners’ Hymns. The addition of unobtrusive subtitle text, which explains and elucidates these images, establishes the otherwise free-associative flow of images as the baseline for a fascinating historical account, one in which the distance between us and the past is itself converted into a form of vivid emotional currency.
Fusing soberly conveyed fact with frontier fable, Dawson City: Frozen Time stands out as a marvelous metaphorical nesting doll, using its found footage format to anchor a series of dazzling figurative tangents. In spotlighting the story of one abandoned pile of film left to molder in one neglected former boom town, it locates a unique inroad to the larger legend of America itself, its scintillating panorama of hopes and dreams, set against each other in the cold financial crucible of the wide open West. In chronicling the downside of that foundational fairy tale, it presents a supple mixture of information and emotion, charting the flow of people pushed out, shunted aside or left behind as progress marched onward, mechanization and corporatization turning the familiar into the frostily foreign. Alongside these movements glided the steady advance of the cinematic medium itself, a flickering commentary on the world of the men who created and sustained it, always searching for the next big strike.