Dawson City: Frozen Time

Film, as a physical material medium, is an unusual object: film reels can often survive in strange settings, remaining undiscovered for decades, and yet these same reels can suddenly go up in a blaze, often taking their surroundings with them.  This is an underplayed theme in Dawson City: Frozen Time, the newest work of filmmaker Bill Morrison.  Film is at once destructive and salvageable, destroyed and saved.

Morrison is often recognized as an experimentalist, but it may be more accurate to refer to him as an archival filmmaker.  Along with the likes of Gustav Deutsch and Peter Forgacs, Morrison is less interested in representing his own thoughts, instead opting to re-present the past.  In his past films, this presentation was non-narrative, simply returning the images, as they appear now with all their beautiful imperfections, to the screen.  While Dawson City does the same, Morrison adds in a narrative, recounting the path a series of silent film reels took, from being screened for audiences in Dawson City, Yukon, the last stop for these films, all the way to the rediscovery of some of them in the basements of various properties throughout the city.  Incidentally, this apathy about the survival of these films miraculously led to their eventual survival.

It is also through this narrative that the film allows for the presentation of a zeitgeist of the time that these films were presented, giving close access to the cinematic tastes of the time as well as other well-known events, perhaps chief among them being the controversial 1919 world series.  This zeitgeist is further placed in a larger context, bringing to light important individuals who got their starts in the Yukon, including famed movie stars and the ancestors of the current American president.

If you are a cinephile with an interest in early cinematic history, the images throughout – both the pristine and the damaged – will fascinate you to no end.  The only issue with the film is the soundtrack, produced by Alex Somers, who is most famous for his work with Icelandic band Sigur Ros.  If you are a fan of this band, the soundtrack may appeal to you more, but the soundtrack’s droning, repetitive nature is liable to cause feelings of nausea.  If you can ignore the soundtrack, or wait for it to become background noise, Dawson City: Frozen Time is an absolutely necessary viewing for anyone who has any love for the art of cinema.


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