What else is Dawson going to uncover?
I’m dating myself by talking about my days in grade school and the numerous films we watched on an actual projector synched to a tape player, but there was something about this form of visual information dispersal that we’ve lost today with televisions, computers, tablets, and smart boards. Now teachers put on a video to grade papers or take a much-needed break because the lesson doesn’t demand his/her participation. Back when I was going to school, however, these filmstrips weren’t so “talk”-heavy. They had moments when the teacher could interject—or perhaps he/she could make use of random pauses because he/she was invested in the experience as projectionist. It wasn’t about pressing play and ignoring the class who in turn ignored the video. A synergistic relationship was formed.
Bill Morrison‘s Dawson City: Frozen Time rekindled these memories because of its construction. His documentary focuses upon hundreds of 1910-1920s-era nitrate reels found buried in the permafrost of a forgotten Yukon Territory, Canada city known as Dawson by using those same films (along with archival footage, photographs, and more) to tell their story. Being that the films themselves were silent pictures thought lost forever, he delivers a silent aesthetic with nothing but captions, burned-in interstitials above the images, and a score by Alex Somers (which is so potent and loud that it drowns out those few minutes at the beginning and end with actual dialogue courtesy of those engaged in the preservation project). It’s an important work that demands a place in film school syllabuses the world over.
And if I had seen it in that context I probably would have given it a higher score. Being that I didn’t, however, I cannot lie and say I needed that hour of backstory on Dawson itself. It’s extremely intriguing and the connections between this Gold Rush town and Hollywood are surprisingly plenty, but I kept wondering where the reels went. This is mostly due to Morrison’s inclusion of a foreshadowing prologue with Michael Gates and Kathy Jones-Gates describing how it felt seeing all those pieces of film popping out of the dirt during a construction project. He shows us that the film is ultimately about those strips and how they got there, so it’s difficult to anticipate just how in-depth he will go to describe that journey.
Even so, this opening hour is full of details that come full circle whether a photograph or description of a notable person or other simply fascinating tidbits (such as Fred Trump opening a brothel and thus putting into motion the origin of the wealth leading to Donald Trump’s unlikely ascension to the United States presidency). Morrison provides a dense narrative delving into populations, real estate, emulsions, and tragedies all before he gets back to the central conceit that Dawson was the end of the line for film distribution (with movies sometimes arriving three years after their initial release and all being left behind so as not to incur the shipping expense back). There’s purpose to this history lesson, but it might not feel worth it if you’re unprepared.
Venue therefore has an impact. To watch what he’s painstakingly researched and collected in an educational setting is inherently different than in a theater. That doesn’t mean it can’t work in both, just that one should approach the latter with eyes open as far as what’s being presented. More than three-quarters of the runtime is sans dialogue. There’s no narration outside the voice in your head reading the captions onscreen and the story itself commences long before the advent of film and even longer before the excavation of those reels in the late-1970s. You may find the trajectory goes off course too, but it will make visual sense even if some of the “chapters” leave Canada, mining, and film to deal with subjects like banking and sports.
What’s undeniable, however, is the documentary’s ability to give us a reason to see these water-damaged films without the need for a local art-house to project them on ancient machinery. Morrison uses these one-of-a-kind prints to enhance his historical tidbits with visual montage. If he’s talking about the man in possession of these reels in Dawson writing to the film studios about taking them back, he uses scenes from multiple movies depicting an actor reading a piece of mail. If he’s talking about putting those crates of combustible stock into the landfill that would fill in the local pool underneath the local ice rink, he uses scenes depicting the carrying of crates onto ships or through buildings. He’ll show clips from these discoveries whenever the opportunity presents itself.
We are whisked away to a different time. This isn’t about present-day experts talking about the past. For the most part Morrison utilizes first-hand accounts through letters, forms, and newspapers to order the photographs and contextually relevant movies included. He spends so much time on the Gold Rush because of how it parallels these reels. Just like gold was mined, so too was the film. As he progresses the story we learn more was hidden: glass negatives, fires started by the nitrate, and a rubber-banding population that allowed the town to exist. Whether metaphor or not, Morrison makes it seem as though these films were natural resources waiting to be unearthed. Just when the world forgot Dawson City, it proved the wealth of its buried riches never dies.
 One of the many reels of the Dawson City Collection recovered in 1978. The story of this remarkable discovery is told in DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME.
 Douglas Fairbanks in THE HALF BREED, one of hundreds of films that are part of the Dawson City Collection.
 Mae Marsh in Polly of the Circus (1917), one of the films from the Dawson City collection.