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Dawson City: Frozen Time
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by Jay Seaver

"Uncover not what was lost, but what was created."
5 stars

There are times when "Dawson City: Frozen Time" feels like a baited trap, a way for the filmmakers to are trying to use the fact that people who watch documentaries are, by and large, passionate about film as a medium, taking advantage of the fact that they've got a movie-history hook to talk about the long-term life of a boomtown. And if that's the goal, good job of it - many in the audience might not have sought out a more conventional film more directly focused on that topic, and it's not like filmmaker Bill Morrison doesn't give the audience a heaping helping of what they want as well.

The hook, as one may or may not know, is that because Dawson City was the end of a "circuit" early in the twentieth century (rather than thousands of prints or hard drives being produced so that a film could debut on the same day, the same prints would move from theaters in large cities to smaller towns in sequence), many prints wound up there and be warehoused - and eventually buried as landfill - because they were too expensive to ship back. These volatile nitrate prints would be forgotten until they were accidentally uncovered in the 1970s, by which time many of the films found were considered lost.

Many films about these events might see this story and wheel out Leonard Maltin, or film scholars who specialized in American cinema of the 1910s, talking about the careers of the people involved, and the painstaking process that goes into restoring the movies. Morrison, however, often finds himself more fascinated not by the films that got to this northern outpost but by how that outpost came to be and how its rapid growth and nearly-as-quick contraction created a place that would have a voracious appetite for film but also the circumstances where things could be easily lost. Morrison gives what often seems like more detail than necessary, a sometime bewildering flurry of names and indications of how often gambling halls and other institutions change hands, barely stopping to mention the frightening fact that the city's downtown business district burned down nine years in a row as a symbol of what sort of churn the place saw. As the timeline extends toward and past the period in which the films were buried, there's time to look at other parts of the life-cycle of this sort of town, from the corporatized, mechanized end of one way of life to the attempts to revive the image of it for tourists.

Most of the time he spends talking with historians and other experts is behind the scenes, though - aside from a bit of interview footage on either end, much of the film is film clips - both of silent films from the period in question and home movies taken by a local resident. Morrison (credited as writer/director/producer/editor) doesn't always try to match film clips directly to action - he'll use actual footage where it exists and some of the great photographs of Eric Hegg where available, but run with a montage of silent film images where not, jumping between films every couple of seconds so that he communicates the idea of the overlaid text but doesn't hit it too square on the nose. Despite the lack of speaking, the feeling is not much like an actual silent film - too much is carried in the text, for example, and the sound design often reference the image directly - but it is also far from the typical modern documentary experience, especially for something that clocks in at an even two hours. It's some virtuoso editing on Morrison's part, enhanced by an unusual Alex Somers soundtrack that, like the bits of film salvaged from Dawson, seems a bit worn, with bits missing and faded.

(According to the credits, some 533 reels of film were salvaged, containing 372 separate short and feature films, with clips from 124 included in the picture.)

It's an audacious pair of choices, and it makes Dawson City a unique viewing experience; it encourages audiences to enter a trance-like state and lean closer in, more fascinated by what they're learning because of the unorthodox way it is being presented. It's easy to look at that as magical, but it's also the result of Morrison putting in a lot of work to give the audience regular doses of what they want even as he goes off on tangents, and finding ways to return to the same topics on a regular basis. There's a combination of suspense and regret built up as he brings up the danger of nitrate film, show how much has been lost in such disastrous manner, or noting the people with connections to Dawson City who would have success (or infamy) elsewhere in the movie industry, not pounding home the idea of fate but allowing the audience to feel the synchronicity of it. Detours into subjects like dredge mining, labor relations, and baseball may not seem directly related to the story being told, but they quietly highlight the importance of some of the footage found underneath a demolished hockey rink, and tie together in a way that reminds the audience that everything is connected, and there is as much meaning to that as one is willing to give it.

Because of the way Morrison puts his film together, "Dawson City: Frozen Time" is likely not the movie one expects going in; it is unique and personal in how it likely reflects his own interests. It will attract the attention of people interesting in lost movies and film preservation, and some of them will likely be disappointed that it's not more strictly informational in talking about the mechanics and contents of this find. Hopefully more will be delighted to find a genuine work of art where they could have just been given an encyclopedia article.

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originally posted: 01/09/18 10:06:11
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  DVD: 31-Oct-2017



Directed by
  Bill Morrison

Written by
  Bill Morrison


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