Bill Morrison’s DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME screened at The Cinema Museum along with other reels from under the ice. Filmmaker Bill Morrison joined Kevin Brownlow afterwards to discuss his 2016 doc. The evening was presented by Kennington Bioscope and programmed by Michelle Facey. Here’s our writeup.
A reel trip through time.
“Film was born of an explosive”; this simple fact about the creation of film stock and the very many deaths that resulted from it’s early combustibility propels Bill Morrison’s 2016 doc DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME. Using a treasure-trove of abandoned silent films as his starting point, Morrison wields an ever-changing kaleidoscope on the past to deliver urgent and uncomfortable truths about where we are now.
DAWSON CITY delivers more than 100 years of rapid-fire socio-economic history in 120 minutes. Like John Ellis’ The Social History Of The Machine Gun, it demonstrates how technical innovation – itself born of pioneering spirit – has been harnessed to create extreme wealth at considerable cost. The battlefields here are those of the Gold Rush, First Nation lands and the violent suppression of workers’ rights. Isolated at the end of the line, the foot soldiers in these battles – the mining folk and their kin – are kept entertained by showmen whose names are now woven into the fabric of our history as familiar brands: Pantages, Grauman, Trump.
Along its journey, DAWSON CITY embraces many forms and becomes many things. It is, perhaps first and foremost, a thriller. Not so much a “whodunnit” – although that features – but a ‘howdunnit’. Following an introduction to the dawn of moving pictures themselves, Morison drives us forward like ponies over the pass to reveal how hundreds of canisters of silent film stock eventually came to be used as landfill to underpin an ice-hockey rink in a once-prosperous frontier town. His forensic work is staggering, representing years of research, scanning, selecting, shaping and editing.
DAWSON CITY is also a history of a national cinema, not just in terms of how film and other forms of “entertainment” gave entrepreneurs a way to “mine the miners”, but also in restoring to the public archives – if only in part – many hitherto missing films. Apocalyptic losses of silent film stock were commonplace, both deliberate – we witness the historic burning of silent films in Dawson as the arrival of talkies renders them commercially redundant – and accidental – The National Film Board of Canada lost their nitrate film archive in a more recent fire. One title card estimates that 75% of all silent film is lost. Another tells us that pioneering filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché alone is credited with some 1,000 films….
Scored with a relentless swirl of sound by Alex Somers, DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME is first and foremost an emotionally arresting artwork, with some of its most haunting sequences conjured from the most damaged discoveries. Titled throughout as a “Dawson City Film Find’, footage from under the ice is instantly recognisable from the extensive water damage that gives it a unique DNA. This ‘damage’ has an abstract, almost alien beauty that comes to animated life as it spools through the projector: an actor appears to be in dialogue with an otherworldly blur; a solo dancer duets with the water marks.
Bill Morrison’s film blows Pandora’s Box wide open. What spools out is an unruly social history that is, at times, almost too much to comprehend. Taking Morrison’s curatorial cue, our obligation is to consider what has been found in what has previously been lost.
HUNGRY FOR MORE?
- Find DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME (2016) on IMDb.
- Bill Morrison’s DAWSON CITY was presented at The Cinema Museum by Kennington Bioscope (18 OCT 2018) and screened from a 35mm print. Kudos to the film’s producer Madeleine Molyneaux for carrying the cans across the Atlantic (and for bringing the guy who drove her from the airport to the screening!).
- Following the film, Morrison was in conversation with Kevin Brownlow where they discussed the origins and challenges of making the film.
- The event was programmed and introduced by film historian Michelle Facey following a meeting with Morrison at the film’s UK premier (BFI London Film Festival 2016). We last met Michelle in the second of our RADIANT CIRCUS interviews with indie programmers where we discussed women in silent cinema. Read Part One & Part Two before following Michelle on Twitter.
- DAWSON CITY was accompanied by two reels from under the ice from Kevin Brownlow’s personal collection: THE RAIL RIDER (1916) 35mm and THE CLOSED ROAD (1916) 16mm – both starring House Peters and directed by Maurice Tourneur. Live piano accompaniment was provided by Costas Fotopoulos.
- Follow Kennington Bioscope online, on Twitter and on Facebook.
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Featured Image: DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME (2016).