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Century-Old Film Treasure Unearthed in ‘Dawson City: Frozen Time’

Bill Morrison’s new work strings together incredible footage, long buried under an old Yukon ice rink.

By Dorothy Woodend 21 Jul 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

For anyone familiar with director Bill Morrison’s body of work, the opening scene of his new film, Dawson City: Frozen Time, may induce something of a double take. Maybe even a minor stroke.

Morrison is best known for his experimental films that combine archival film and contemporary scores. Decasia (2002), a collaboration with composer Michael Gordon, was described by The Village Voice as “the most widely acclaimed American avant-garde film of the fin-de-siècle.” Decasia was also the first film from the 21st century to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.

Frozen Time does not start in typical Morrison fashion. Rather than the expected acid-etched footage and modernist score, there is the filmmaker himself, being cheerfully interviewed about baseball in a brightly lit television studio, overlooked by a blazing orange logo that screams High Heat.

Film and memory have long been Morrison’s métier, but in Frozen Time a third element enters the frame. Call it serendipity, fate, coincidence, whatever you like. It is the trickster nature that moves through the universe, upsetting apple carts, bringing lovers together and then tearing them asunder, lighting stuff on fire, and bringing long lost things back home again. Occasionally, this capricious force evens lands a experimental filmmaker inside a Major League Baseball broadcast about the 1919 World Series.

In its copious amount of quixotic surprise, the film that appears to have the most direct bearing on Frozen Time is an early Morrison work, The Film Of Her (1996). Her is fantastical retelling of the fight to preserve film history, initiated by the singular obsession of a young clerk in the Library of Congress. Documentary combines with dramatic license to incendiary effect as the clerk recounts that it was a glimpse of an unknown actress in a vintage porn film that fuelled his fire. The quest to preserve some of the earliest works of cinema become entangled with a more personal desire to bring “Her” back to life, after being frozen in time.

Dawson City: Frozen Time is also the story of ordinary people recognizing the presence of something extraordinary, and setting out to revivify it.

One day in 1978, a backhoe operator named Frank Barrett was breaking ground for a new construction in Dawson City, directly behind the legendary Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall. Mid-dig, Barrett stumbled across what looked to be weird pile of old skates, broken curling stones, black canisters, and curiously enough spools of films, snaking through the bare dirt. What unfurled next is one of the strangest intersections of art, history and old-fashioned good fortune that literally unearthed the mother lode of cinema, frozen in the ground for more than 50 years.

At the height of the silent era, the films were screened in Dawson at the very end of their cinematic run. As it was expensive to ship them back to California, and since no one much cared anyway, they were piled in the basement of the Carnegie Library until it ran out of space. Many were simply set on fire or thrown in the Yukon River, but the remainder were moved across the street to the local recreation centre and used as landfill for the swimming pool that was turned into a hockey rink. The site was not entirely unknown to Dawson residents. One interviewee recounts kids firing up the bits of nitrate film that stuck out of the ice. When the ice rink burned down, the site was paved over and remained undisturbed until Barrett dug it up.

The very existence of the “Dawson City film find” required a convergence of folk including Michael Gates (curator of collections for Parks Canada), Kathy Jones-Gates (then-director of the Dawson Museum), and Sam Kula of the National Film, Television and Sound Archives, who took stock of the discovery and determined the existence of some 533 reels, many of which were the only remaining copies of films from the silent era. (Thanks in part to nitrate stock’s self-immolating qualities, more than 75 per cent of silent films are estimated to have been lost.)

When Kula first heard of the newly recovered films, his initial hope was to find footage of legendary vamp Theda Bara. While there was no Bara in the Dawson films, there was newsreel footage that captured some the most remarkable events of the 20th century, from the Ludlow Massacre to scenes of trench warfare from the First World War. After some painstaking retrieval the films were carefully packed away in a nearby root cellar, until they could be shipped to Ottawa with some help from the armed forces.

Frozen Time is a quintessentially Canadian story, linking the Yukon Gold Rush, the history of Dawson, and huge slices of world history, captured through the singular magic of cinema and screened in this remote corner of Canada.

It is one thing to read about famous events; it is entirely something else to see them, writ large on the big screen. And here is where Frozen Time truly astounds. The cast of characters is extraordinary: Charlie Chaplin, Jack London, the poet Robert Service and photographer Eric Hegg, who captured the most ionic images of the gold rush. Alexander Pantages and Sid Graumann both started their careers in the Yukon before launching epic film careers of their own.

Fortunes were made and lost. Donald Trump’s grandfather Fred launched the family fortune by starting a bordello in Dawson. Here is Edison. There is Alice Guy-Blaché. And there are the 1919 Chicago White Sox, including Shoeless Joe Jackson and pitcher Eddie Cicotte, busily throwing the World Series. Morrison himself flagged the footage from the British Canadian Pathé newsreel of the double play that aroused the suspicions and led to the permanent expulsion of the “Black Sox” players. (Hence the film’s introductory interview with MLB’s High Heat.)

But there is a uniquely Canadian aspect to the film that is sometimes piled over by the sheer deluge of different narratives. It was photographer Hegg’s glass plate images of the gold rush that inspired Colin Low’s NFB film City of Gold.

In City of Gold, Pierre Berton describes his childhood in Dawson, playing in the abandoned clapboard buildings, forsaken sternwheelers, and the slowly rotting train engines that dotted the old part of town. But it is the memories of his father that burn most brightly in the film, specifically that of the 100,000 Stampeders who set out for Dawson City at the height of the gold rush. The images of an endless snaking line of humans ascending the Chilkoot Pass still amaze. Or, as Berton recounts: “This scene above all others remained in my father’s mind, till his dying day. Even when his memory began to fail, this spectacle remained.”

The film was nominated for an Academy Award in 1957 and is credited with inspiring documentarian Ken Burns, but Frozen Time itself owes a great deal to Low’s work. The emotional convergence of film and memory that permeates City of Gold is amply present in Morrison’s Frozen Time, although in other aspects, most notably music and narration, they could not be more different.

Morrison’s collaborations with composers and musicians as diverse as Bill Frisell (The Great Flood), Jóhann Jóhansson (Miner’s Hymns), and Simon Christensen (Tributes: Pulse, conceived as a tribute to Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow, Steve Reich, and Trent Reznor) have explored the marriage of sound and image in entirely new ways. In Frozen Time, composer Alex Somers (a frequent collaborator with Sigur Rós) contributes a score that moves easily between the different emotional polarities of the film, from the stentorian thunder that punctuates newsreel footage devoted to trench warfare and the manufacture of grenades, to gossamer aural waves moving over the stippled, ruined beauty of archival footage, bubbling with scratches, damage and acidulous drips, but still possessed of a singular and melancholy beauty.

The fascinating thing about Frozen Time is not the endless amounts of surprise or the curious circuitous connections between people and places. From the birth of cinema to George Carmack’s first discovery of gold on Bonanza and later El Dorado Creek, the film is bountiful, overflowing with moments big and small that will leave your jaw dangling in mid-air. Is everything connected to everything else, one might well ask?

Like many of Morrison’s films, it is the emotion attached to these images that most endures, the crepuscular twilight feeling of time passing on. More than just melancholy or nostalgia, it is an unsettling combination of pleasure and pain. It is that airport feeling, of saying goodbye and taking leave. Weirdly enough, watching Frozen Time reminded me of the experience of visiting the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria as a child, and specifically what we called “the old timey town” exhibit. The feeling of being inside a waking dream, of immersion in a different time and place, another life you might have had if you’d been born 100 years earlier. 

The same quality suffuses Frozen Time. You emerge from the film like you’ve been away for a long while, somewhere else entirely.

In one of the film reels rescued from the Yukon earth, there occurs the following line: “The salamander of the ancients was a mythical creature that lived through fire unscorched.” It could easily stand in for cinema itself, born in flames, and carrying endless worlds inside its thin slip of self.

Dawson City: Frozen Time is playing at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver from July 21 to 27.  [Tyee]

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