Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016). 120 minutes. Written, directed, and edited by Bill Morrison. Music by Alex Somers.
Dawson City: Frozen Time is a documentary that is equal parts history of the late nineteenth-century Klondike Gold Rush, exploration of the early film industry, and exhibition of a major silver-nitrate silent movie horde discovered buried in an old swimming pool in Dawson City, Canada (a Gold Rush boom town). The movie explores how the fate of this valuable silent film collection came to be intertwined with its small-town community and how they were similarly affected by the ravages of time. That it manages to treat all of its topics with equal consideration and resourcefulness is a real feat, but that it does so while infusing its narrative with wonder and appreciation for the fragility of both film and human life is an unexpected gift.
The film broadly tells the story of the gold fever that swept North America in the late nineteenth century to provide context for the story of Dawson City’s movie treasures. At one point during the Gold Rush, the population of Dawson City swelled to 40,000, and multiple theaters operated locally to cater to its audiences, which craved the full range of films in production. The Yukon town, however, was at the far end of the film distribution system, and Dawson City’s theaters typically received movies two to three years after their release. Once the films had run their course, the studios did not want to pay for their return. As a result, most often the films were filed away or dumped in the nearby river with the wintertime ice floes.
When the sound revolution came in the late 1920s, the archived silent films were no longer desirable, and storing the films became uneconomical. The Dawson City silent film archives were used to fill in an empty athletic club pool so that it could be smoothly iced over for a hockey and curling rink. Later, in 1978, when the athletic club site was excavated for construction purposes, workers turned up 533 film reels dating from 1903 to 1929. Film archivists determined that the permafrost of the pool site had in many regards perfectly preserved the volatile silver-nitrate film, although water damage was evident on many prints. Library and Archives Canada and the U. S. Library of Congress restored the reels to the best of their ability, discovering in the process many titles that had been unknown or thought lost, starring actors such as William Desmond Taylor, Fatty Arbuckle, Mary Miles Minter, and so on.
Dawson City: Frozen Time makes use of a range of materials and narrative techniques to tell the story of the silent film horde discovery. There are brief interview snippets with locals at the movie’s beginning and conclusion, but the rest of the story is chiefly told through captions over photographs, set to a hypnotic soundtrack by Alex Somers. The photographs are filmed using a pan-and-scan method that might be familiar to American audiences from Ken Burns documentaries such as The Civil War (1990). But Dawson City: Frozen Time includes more than just photos. There are also clips from later films from the 1940s and 1950s, particularly about the Gold Rush, as well as footage from home movies shot by Dawson City residents. And then, of course, there are the Dawson silent films, clips of which are spread throughout the narrative. Each time a film from the Dawson City vault is used, the caption clearly identifies it, and by the documentary’s end, we see a great many clips from the archives.
Just as the documentary employs a plethora of storytelling resources, it also offers us portraits of numerous and varied historical figures that played a role in the evolution of the Canadian town. Many of them may be known to you, such as famed Yukon photographer Eric Hegg; Sidney Grauman, founder of the legendary Hollywood theaters known as The Chinese and The Egyptian; Alexander Pantages, another early movie theater entrepreneur; the aforementioned William Desmond Taylor, the actor and director who was mysteriously murdered in Hollywood in the 1920s; and authors Jack London and Robert Service, among others. The film effectively conveys the importance of Dawson City in the Gold Rush context but also underscores the extent to which so many of the movers and shakers of the twentieth century were there, particularly people involved in the early film industry.
Hegg’s story is one of the most relevant. At one point we learn that some of his original glass photographic negatives somehow came to be stored in the walls of a nearby cabin that was taken apart later in the twentieth century. The negatives were nearly destroyed so that they could be scraped clean and repurposed as greenhouse paneling, but fortunately a local enthusiast intervened. The fate of Hegg’s negatives resembles the fate of the Dawson City films: both were treated as filler material, forgotten, and nearly obliterated until someone who realized their value intervened. The two stories together suggest that the survival of works of art, or any material thing for that matter, is uncertain at best. At worst, the things that we value overwhelmingly disappear from the earth.
As the movie progresses, it is easy to see how the endangerment and survival of Hegg’s negatives and the Dawson films are intimately tied to the perils of life in Dawson City. When the Gold Rush was in full swing, hundreds of thousands of people made the arduous trek to the Yukon, but as the documentary reminds us, few successfully completed the trip. The footage and stills of people passing along the Chilkoot Pass during the original Yukon Gold Rush of 1898 that are included in the film are stunning and devastating. We see thousands of people living in desolate conditions, striving to achieve the impossible. Those who made it to towns like Dawson City were the lucky ones, but even they barely survived. As the documentary points out, in addition to frigid winters, the main street of the city burned down every year for eight years. The destruction and devastation of life at the edge of the world must have been incredible.
The movie provides us with many close-ups of the people who lived through this period. We see them dressed in dark, threadbare clothes—thin, grizzled, and stark against the flat white of the ice-and-snow-covered backgrounds. The glimpses of people provided via stills and documentary footage from this period in the city’s history are among some of the most astounding visuals of Dawson City: Frozen Time. They offer us insight into the audiences that originally viewed the Dawson City film repository and kept the film community in that town going. But they also remind us of the extreme fragility of life—not only for film, art, and ideas, but for people as well.
The fact that anything has survived from the Gold Rush days in a town like Dawson City is impressive. The fact that this one Gold Rush town managed accidentally to preserve a uniquely surviving collection of films is nothing short of astounding. What we see from the collection suggests its preservation was well worthwhile. Director and editor Bill Morrison pieces together some exquisite montages of common tropes in Dawson films. In one sequence, characters from different movies travel up staircases to hallways, other characters knock on doors, and still other characters listen on the other side—the implied unity shared by the films is moving and wonderful. Without a doubt the most stunning assemblage of finds from the Dawson archives is the final climactic montage, which shows some of the worst of the water-damaged films. For example, we see a scene with a man who is gesticulating passionately at a figure who has been consumed by damage; the right side of the screen, destroyed by water, flickers like fire as the man points to it repeatedly, but we cannot see who is there. The effect is haunting and strange.
Perhaps the most beautiful clip from this montage consists of a woman dancing with a piece of diaphanous fabric. The water damage whips around the screen as the woman twists and turns with the fabric whirling around her. The footage, water damage included, is lovely, and the injury to the film actually seems to enhance the beauty of what we see, for the actress dances with more than her scarf—she appears to be dancing with the film itself. It is hard to imagine that this scene would have seemed nearly as heavenly when it was screened intact originally. That is one of the most wonderful aspects of Dawson City: Frozen Time: in the end, it is also about how distressed and partially destroyed art can transform into a thing of beauty in its own right. The documentary helps us to find the exquisite in the ruined, the decrepit, and the incomplete, presenting an impassioned case for loving, caring for, and reveling in fragmentary film treasures. Although Dawson City: Frozen Time is about more than those films, their story ties all of the movie’s themes together, and through them the documentary offers its greatest expression of gratitude for and awe regarding life, art, and histories that endure over time.