I find it hard to review Dawson City: Frozen Time without writing about the background context behind Bill Morrison’s visually euphoric documentary. In 1978, construction workers unearthed a long lost silent film collection from a subarctic swimming pool in a Yukon mining village, not far from the titular Dawson City, Canada. The films, over 500 of them, were in varying states of decay, produced during a time when nitrate film stock was the norm, so the films are highly destructible. Since 1978, the films have been fully restored to the best possible quality and stored in a Virginian archive. Bill Morrison steps into the story about 40 years later and offers his perspective; what he does in Dawson City: Frozen Time combines the images of the rediscovered silent films with North American cinema history, the history of Dawson City, and the appropriate photographs to document the story.
Dawson City: Frozen Time is a complex, dense film that packs in a lot of historical material into 2-hours. Morrison is an avant-garde filmmaker known for working with corroded images in many of his short films and features, so from the off-set, I could position him in the Stan Brakhage or Derek Jarman school of experimental filmmakers. Dawson City: Frozen Time is a very accessible entry point into Morrison’s body of work – it’s a coherent and worthwhile history lesson mixed in with the aforementioned deteriorated clips giving off a sense of poetic weight. There is no voice-over Dawson City: Frozen Time, Morrison uses text-on-image to help guide through the timeline of the last days of the Klondike gold rush, the settlement of North Americans in Dawson City, and the birth of the silent film industry.
But how is Morrison’s latest film euphoric? Or beautiful? Or poetic, for that matter? The easy answer is Dawson City: Frozen Time is one mammoth montage, topped and tailed with interviews from the people who found the nitrate films. There are no talking heads for 95% of the film. In-between the beginning and the ending, Morrison slowly paces the film into a hypnotic rhythm where you fall in love with the beauty of the imagery. The water damage on the nitrate film has a wonderful texture to it, add that with flickering flourishes of sound design, and Alex Somers’s extraordinary ambient score, and you have a film that is enrapturing.
It’s tricky to summarise my feelings because again, Dawson City: Frozen Time packs in a lot of detail about the history of Canada and America. In a way, the film reminds me of Adam Curtis’s BBC iPlayer documentary, Bitter Lake. Here you have two filmmakers who are handed a collection of visual material, in Curtis’s case 18 terabytes of the BBC’s entire Afghanistan news coverage, and as for Morrison, it’s the lost silent films produced from the mid-late 1910s onwards. From there, both men chip away at the material to form a narrative that captures the historical, political, and social context found in their focused countries. Therefore, each film begins with a large item (the 18-terabyte hard drive or the hundreds of water damaged reels of nitrate film) that evolves into capturing a world that no longer exists.
Dawson City: Frozen Time offers a window into a fascinating time period lost deep within the realms of time. The rich visuals and haunting sound design wash over you, so it will take one or two re-watches to fully grasp Dawson City: Frozen Time’s structure. That said, I do think Morrison can be too conventional with his editing choices, at times. Morrison heavily relies on the “Ken Burns” effect, a technique used on still images to focus on persons or items of interest. I get the point, the panning and zooming make the photographs look cinematic when B-roll isn’t an option. What bothers me is in Dawson City: Frozen Time’s first hour, when the repetition of panning or zooming into city dwellers, miners, and prostitutes is in effect, the documentary loses a bit of its power. I don’t want to say it grows tiresome after a while, but I am looking at a series of still images one after another, they don’t have the same effect on me as the film reels do. After the first half though, the film ratchets up with more of the damaged film stock and fewer photographs, so Dawson City: Frozen Time becomes a more enveloping experience if a little later than expected.
Other than that, I can’t think of many criticisms with Dawson City: Frozen Time. It is hypnotic, it is beautiful, and it has cameos from people like Charlie Chaplin to Fred Trump. In terms of the Second Run Blu-Ray extras, there is an interview with Bill Morrison about the making of Dawson City: Frozen Time, two short films by Morrison (one of which, Dawson City: Postscript, follows what happened to the nitrate films after they left Canada), and a selection of newsreels and snippets of the rescued silent films. Dawson City: Frozen Time is a treat from Second Run to their ever-growing cult of fans and a worthy addition to any Second Run collection.