Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time, screened at the 73rd Venice Film Festival, looks at the interconnected histories of a Canadian mining town and the birth of cinema.
From the 1890’s to the early 20th century, at around the same time as the birth of the invention of cinema, a gold rush began in this particular slice of Western Canada that had been previously inhabited by Native Americans. The hordes of prospectors (at its peak, the population of Dawson City reached 40,000), kept themselves entertained at casinos, brothels and, soon enough, movie theatres. In fact, due to its remoteness, Dawson City found itself at the end of distribution line. As a result, films screened there at this time (the golden age of silents) were shown many years after their initial release. Furthermore, after their theatrical run, nobody wanted to pay for the shipping costs to ship the reels back to the studios. So, what happens to the film?
This documentary tells us that in the summer of 1978, an excavation for a new building behind Dawson City casino led to the discovery of reels and reels of old nitrate films dating back from the teens and the 1920’s. At the end of the search, archivists and historians estimated that the surviving remnants amounted to 372 titles, all of which had been thought lost forever (in the early years of cinema, film was made of gun cotton, and was therefore highly flammable and extremely dangerous to store; as a result many reels were destroyed).
Morrison puts this early footage to good use to tell many stories: namely, the story of the evolution and proliferation of the cinematic art and the story of Dawson City. This latter aspect includes accounts of the many tragedies of a city that was burnt to the ground annually in its first nine years, and the story of the many famous fortunes that were made in its vicinities (including that of one Frederick Trump, Donald’s grandfather).
To tell these stories, the director uses archive materials of all kind: documents; newspapers; photos; documentary footage; fiction films recovered at Dawson City. Some of the latter include recognizable sequences from works starring such silent film icons as Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle. Dawson City: Frozen Time also avoids telling its story through words, in honor of the cinema of its time, which was, of course, silent. Nonetheless, the flickering monochromatic sequences are accompanied by an atmospheric electronic music score by Alex Somers may be overbearingly creepy (this word occasionally pops up in reviews of Morrison’s film).
However, Dawson City: Frozen Time is an excellent work that could appeal to a wider audience than the average archive documentary one, and as a result, may be many people’s introduction to the magic of silent films. It might also lead to a viewer’s confrontation with and consideration of the importance of the invention of mechanical reproduction of history through photography and cinematography. – ★★★★
FROZEN CITY: FROZEN TIME | 2016, USA | Documentary | Directed by – Bill Morrison / Produced by – Madeleine Molyneaux, Bill Morrison / Written by – Bill Morrison / Music by – Alex Somers / Editing by – Bill Morrison / 120 mins.