Documentary Review – Dawson City: Frozen in Time

It’s something that most silent movie fans dream of: a cache of rare silent films, hundreds of them, found buried in Canada. Preserved by the permafrost, these movies were recovered in the 1970s.

Filmmaker Bill Morrison takes the story of the Dawson Film Find and uses it as a lens through which to view the Gold Rush town of Dawson itself, from its days as a boom town to a small hamlet with tourist appeal. Famous names– Sid Grauman, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Frederick Trump– drift through the narrative as battered snippets of recovered film illustrate the story.

Courtesy Kathy Jones Gates via Kino Lorber

The fact that the documentary can construct its narrative almost entirely with footage from the Dawson Film Find illustrates the sheer scope and variety of the pictures that were recovered. There are a few biggish names in the lot but most are standard programmers from the silent era, the sort of thing families would casually attend on a weekend night. The Find is a core sample of the everyday entertainment of the silent era, preserved without being curated or any thought given to the relative importance of its contents. The value of this cannot be overstated as the randomness of the selection provides an intriguing contrast to the silent films officially deemed important by modern cinema historians.

via Kino Lorber

Dawson City: Frozen in Time takes a moody, ambient approach, as cool and mysterious as the Gold Rush images that fill the documentary. This approach is sometimes a little too remote but is generally effective. Dawson went from a rowdy mining town with brothels and gambling houses to a mid-century rural hamlet with a fateful thirst for hockey. All the while, movies were steadily delivered to entertain the locals and it was simply too expensive to send them back. As was the case with New Zealand, Dawson was the end of the line and they were left with stacks of outdated, flammable pictures that could not be screened after the rental contract had ended. The coolness of the narrative is punctuated by fires, some started by nitrate, some by arson and all destroying a piece of Dawson. Build, burn, rebuild, repeat.

Courtesy of Vancouver Public Library via Kino Lorber

The importance of the Dawson Film Find and the surviving pictures is obvious to silent film devotees but even the most casual viewer will soon realize exactly how challenging film preservation is. These battered prints, in some cases, represent the only surviving footage of once-beloved motion pictures. Obviously, these glimpses are tantalizing to silent film fans as the majority of these pictures have yet been made available to the general public.

While the documentary offers buried treasure aplenty, there are few distractions for silent film fans. Irish-born William Desmond Taylor, one of many celebrities with a connection to Dawson, is described only a “famed silent film star” when his last acting role was actually in 1915. He spent the last seven years of his life becoming one of America’s top directors. The documentary then states that “the studios protected whoever was responsible” for his 1922 murder, which is an oversimplification of a complicated case and, come on, are we really letting the Los Angeles police off the hook? I understand the need not to become bogged down in the WDT Murder mire but why not simply state that the murder is still unsolved and leave it at that? This is a pity because seeing how Yukon newspapers reacted to the murder is fascinating (local boy dead!) and the coverage shows that the local press hasn’t changed that much over the years. Further, we are shown footage of Taylor’s acting career, which is always welcome.

At its core, Dawson City: Frozen in Time is an examination of humanity’s clever innovation and the propensity for destruction and how both tendencies have made their mark on the modern world. Casual cultural vandalism crops up repeatedly, from small boys igniting rare film for kicks to a woman trying to scrub priceless emulsification off glass plates so that she can build a greenhouse. The film cache at Dawson was not preserved due to the efforts of concerned archivists but because it was easier to bury the films than to burn them. But never fear, a great deal of nitrate goes up in flames as well. These kinds of stories are all too familiar to devotees of silent film but seeing them play out over the years is heartbreaking.

Silent films are among the least respected cultural artifacts of the modern age and so seeing a deposit of them treated with respect and rescued from obscurity is a comfort. The Dawson City Film Find is now stored away, safe from the nonchalance that doomed the majority of silent cinema. Dawson City: Frozen in Time is a chance to experience its miraculous rediscovery for ourselves and to wonder what else is out there.

Dawson City: Frozen in Time opens in the United States on June 9, 2017.

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3 Replies to “Documentary Review – Dawson City: Frozen in Time”

  1. Is it in the semi abstract style of his earlier works? Another review contained a link to one of them, I was blown away; completely degraded image but a narrative could be discerned and excellent modern abstract music. A new art form.

    1. I am not an expert myself but devotees seem to feel it’s a bit less abstract in that it is bookended by a few scenes in the more traditional documentary style.

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