Dawson City: Frozen Time
by Hope Madden
If art imitates life, then can the discarded art of a period tell us an insightful story of a forgotten time and place? Documentarian Bill Morrison thinks so, or his latest, Dawson City: Frozen Time, suggests as much.
A pastor and part-time backhoe operator in Dawson – a small town in the Yukon – unearthed a trove of nitrate film reels from the silent era while digging up the land behind Diamond Tooth Gertie’s gambling hall in 1978.
Adding a minimum of spoken explanation or context, all of which is quarantined to the opening and closing of his film, Morrison pieces together footage from the find with sometimes startlingly gorgeous photos and other craftily placed film bits, as well as onscreen type, to weave his tale.
His film tells of Dawson’s fascinating history – the romantic, dangerous kind usually reserved for Wild West legends. (Maybe something worthy of the name Diamond Tooth Gertie?)
Dawson was the last stop for a film, a location so remote and far flung, distributors refused to pay the postage to have their movies returned. Theater managers disposed of most of it in the same way the townspeople disposed of everything at the time – down river during the thaw.
But one crafty bank manager – because it was in the bank that many reels were held – decided to use it as landfill beneath the town’s ice rink. The permafrost kept the reels from deteriorating entirely, and their water damage only adds to the odd and dreamy style Morrison uses to sketch out this history.
Immersed in Alex Somers’s often hypnotic score, the film is a meticulously crafted near-silent film itself – a work full of insight on history and art. Perhaps too meticulous. Feeling every minute of its 2-hour run time, Frozen Time is often so bogged down in minutia that the bigger, more fascinating picture can get lost.
Though his documentary does share insights into Dawson’s labor, expansion, culture, science and the displacement of native peoples, Morrison is interested in more than the progression of the town.
His doc is also about film as art, and the ways that art can be manipulated to tell a compelling story. The filmmaker, relying heavily though not exclusively on reels uncovered by Frank Barrett’s backhoe, edits together images from wildly varying movies having nothing to do with Dawson. He uses these to articulate, in clever and sometimes wryly funny fashion, the history unfolding.