Dawson City: Frozen Time

 
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Directed, Written, and Edited by Bill Morrison
Run Time: 120 mins | Genre: Documentary
Viewed at Gene Siskel Film Center
★★★☆☆

Dawson City: Frozen Time chronicles the history of the titular town during and after its status as the epicenter of the Klondike gold rush. The film does this in order to set up the remarkable discovery of 533 nitrate film reels that were stored in an athletic center's indoor swimming pool. To explain all this, Bill Morrison constantly overlays text on photographs and film clips. For those who have seen Morrison's previous features, the abundance of text is a bit alarming. At first, there is a sense that this is perhaps an unwise decision—does Morrison not have faith in the power of the images on display? And surely it would've been more appropriate to use intertitles? But as the film progresses, it's clear that this is the only possibly way that Morrison could have told the full story.

Aside from a couple brief moments, Dawson City never aims for the kaleidoscopic collage of Decasia. Morrison is captivated by the content here—both the films and the story that surrounds them—and as such, it's understood that he thinks it all deserves to be thoroughly told. This is a relief considering how disastrous The Miners' Hymns and The Great Flood were in their half-baked attempts at quasi-experimental documentary. Neither film fully committed to a conventional presentation style and consequently forced its utilization of decaying nitrate film upon the viewer, turning an ostensibly avant-garde element into mere ornamentation.

When watching Morrison's films, I'm often confronted with a question of effectiveness that recalls my impression of Anne Carson's NoxNox is a peculiar epitaph-as-book written for the author's deceased brother. In it, Carson presents poetry, dictionary entries, and photographs in what is essentially a glorified scrapbook. It's a very precious book printed in a accordion style, relying heavily on its gimmicks to transmit any sort of profundity. Similarly, I'm not always sure that Morrison's fascination with damaged nitrate film is a good thing; it's not always certain that it's being considered for its physical properties beyond the striking visuals it creates. Dawson City succeeds, then, because it rarely privileges the aesthetics of nitrate film above the story being told. The footage we see is a historical document, and we're meant to be captivated by how it gives us a glimpse of the time period it was filmed in, as well as of Dawson City itself.

 
 

The unearthed films aren't only presented as archival curios, though. As the plot unfolds, Morrison occasionally shows relevant excerpts from numerous films in quick succession. For example, we read from the onscreen text that a movie theater has opened. What then follows is a sequence of film clips that feature people entering a theater, sitting down in their seats, and reacting to what they're seeing. This restructuring of old films to provide a story with supplemental visual aid is reminiscent of Peter Delpeut's The Forbidden Quest. In Delpeut's film, he takes old polar expedition films and crafts a new narrative meant to be taken as authentic evidence of a voyage to the Antarctic.

As a mockumentary, The Forbidden Quest has no reason to disclose its source material since the film needs to uphold its conceit and try to come off somewhat convincing. Morrison, however, always makes sure to provide citations for the films used in Dawson City. When he cycles through many at a time, we're astounded by multiple things: the enormity of the discovery, the technical feat of Morrison's assemblages, and the humanness of all the films. Because alongside films meant for entertainment, we witness numerous newsreels with generic titles such as Universal Current Events Vol. 1, Issue 2 and Pathé Weekly, No. 7. The residents of Dawson City were able to learn what was happening outside the Yukon. As viewers, we're placed in the interesting position of imagining what it was like for these residents to experience that. It's safe to say that Morrison wants to capitalize on the power of film to conjure up feelings of unity amongst the human population. Which is why there's little obfuscation in Dawson City or desire to revel in some abstract artistic statement.

Sigur Rós collaborator Alex Somers handles the soundtrack and it unsurprisingly recalls his work with the Icelandic band and for Captain Fantastic: sweeping ambient soundscapes comprised of tape delays, vocal loops, and cinematic strings. It's a bit garish at times (Morrison specifically asked Somers to create something "epic" and "ethereal") but it never feels manipulative. More importantly, it doesn't feel like the slapdash afterthought of The Great Flood's blues and jazz soundtrack. What Somers provides is obvious and familiar, but all the better for it. If the soundtrack veered into more experimental territories, it would undermine the spirit of Dawson City and become another sensory overload multimedia presentation a la Decasia.

When Dawson City comes to a close, it does so by explaining how the unique conditions with which the reels were stored led to their intriguing visual characteristics. Morrison then plays several clips that are among the film's most aesthetically pleasing. It ends on a particularly elegant note: a woman dances as if she's cognizant of the flickering swirls that appear beside her. It fully captures the allure of the films that were discovered—it showcases the beauty that arises from decaying film, and presents a vivid snapshot of people at a specific place and time.