Audrey Kupferberg: Dawson City - Frozen Time

Oct 20, 2017

Up until now, filmmaker Bill Morrison has been known for his art film DECASIA, which rightly describes as “a meditation on the human quest to transcend physicality, constructed from decaying archival footage and set to an original symphonic score.”

With a love for the visuals that only rotting nitrate film stock can provide, it was inevitable that Morrison would turn his attention to the most dramatically deteriorating silent film find of the Twentieth Century: the discovery of many hundreds of thousands of feet of film buried in a covered-over swimming pool in Dawson City, Yukon, in northwest Canada.

Morrison has constructed his film, which is titled DAWSON CITY:  FROZEN TIME, as a documentary of sorts, and it strongly qualifies as an avant-garde film.  Incidentally, it is produced in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art.  As in DECASIA, Morrison mesmerizes his audiences with a steady flow of fascinating images – decaying clips of films found underground as landfill in the Dawson City film lode,  still images and home movies which furnish the history of Dawson City from its beginnings in the late 1890s, and its fast growth as a stopping point for a hundred thousand miners and peripheral entrepreneurs in 1897-1899 during the height of the Klondike Gold Rush. 

In 1899, while mining strikes continued, three quarters of the population moved on to Nome Alaska where another gold strike had just been publicized.  Dawson City moved from being an immoral mining town of saloons and brothels to become a more conventional place to live. 

Just as Dawson City was setting down roots, motion pictures were beginning to be shown in small theaters and nickelodeons across Canada.  After a few years of playing catch-up, Dawson City set up a few theaters.  Being so far from civilization, the film companies who owned the film reels and their copyrights arranged with the manager of the local Canadian Bank of Commerce to store the prints, which were then out-of-date, rather than pay their way back to company-owned vaults.    

Viewers of DAWSON CITY:  FROZEN TIME learn the fascinating history of this Klondike settlement and focus on the history of highly flammable, chemically unstable nitrate motion picture films that made their way into town but did not leave.  Hundreds apparently were tossed into the Yukon River along with the garbage each spring after the thaw permitted.  Hundreds were stored in the vacant Carnegie Library building.  Finally, in 1929, the bank manager ordered that the films be stored as landfill in an empty swimming pool that was being covered to serve as a hockey rink.  

Close to fifty years passed. The year was 1978.  The swimming pool was dug up, and there were hundreds of reels of film!  Here is where the Morrison film disappoints.  He takes his viewers to the beginnings of the water-damaged and chemically unstable archival preservation process, but he leaves us ignorant of the unique preservation processes that had to be created and instituted in order to deal with such a dramatically damaged but content-rich collection.  There is no mention of the Library of Congress building giant squirrel cages to dry the film, as splices popped and warpage and shrinkage set in.  There is no mention of The American Film Institute’s participation in the project, especially in coordinating the portion of films brought into the US for preservation and publicizing the find.

I know because in 1978 I was Associate Film Archivist at The American Film Institute and I worked on the project.

Still, Bill Morrison is a genius filmmaker.  His methods are unique, and his films are works of art.  DAWSON CITY:  FROZEN TIME is a gift for those who love North American history and film history, and are delighted by visuals of early films that almost didn’t survive to help tell the story. 

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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