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Review: Dawson City: Frozen Time

Throughout, filmmaker Bill Morrison mixes documentarian detail with an ecstatic sense of poetry.




Dawson City: Frozen Time
Photo: Kino Lorber

In 1978, over 500 nitrate film prints dating from 1910 to 1920 were unearthed in a former Klondike Gold Rush town, Dawson City, having been preserved by permafrost and encased in an empty swimming pool in what used to be a recreational axis of the community. In Dawson City: Frozen Time, Bill Morrison affords us a teasing glimpse at these films; they’re a significant portion of his documentary’s DNA, yet we’re aware of seeing only the tip of an iceberg. It’s estimated that over 75 percent of all silent films have been permanently lost, and Morrison shines a light on the aching immensity of this void.

Art can offer a historical record of events as well as a symbolic representation of society’s fears and longings. The lost films of Dawson City shed startling light on the Klondike Gold Rush, which elaborates on the foundation of modern North America. The Gold Rush invented contemporary notions of wealth, creating dynasties that still rule society. Early in Frozen Time, for instance, it’s disclosed that Friedrich Trump made a fortune opening a brothel called the Arctic Hotel in the Klondike territory town of Whitehorse. Dozens of other figures who’re pivotal to the invention of modern American culture also casually flitted in and out of Dawson City and its surrounding territories, such as Daniel and Solomon Guggenheim, Jack London, Alexander Pantages, Sid Grauman, Fatty Arbuckle, Eric Hegg, and William Desmond Taylor.

With the rediscovered nitrate films, as well as on-screen text and an astute selection of other footage and photographs, Morrison brings Dawson City so vividly to life that one feels as if they could navigate its streets and glad-hand with its proprietors merely by watching his documentary. Morrison nimbly allows one to discern the spatial relationships between buildings, particularly the theaters as they open and close and open again in accordance with defining trends. Front Street was where the brothels and gambling halls were in Dawson City, until the town affected an air of self-righteous purity, closing operations of ill repute and banning the prostitutes to Klondike City—which parallels the fashions with which the United States hypocritically launders its own ultraviolent origins. Un-coincidentally, Klondike City is also where the first nation camp of the Tr’ochëk tribe was relocated after tribespeople were forced off their land at the beginning of the Gold Rush, watching as their hunting and fishing grounds were plundered beyond recognition.

Watching Morrison’s narrative unfold (which also covers, in certain meta twists, part of the origin of the documentary form), we grasp the intoxication and infuriation of the illusion of the American dream of self-realization. Cinema began almost in tandem with this dream as a novelty act, and it represents our insatiable need for diversion and stimulation while being, like the American dream, irreconcilably rooted in racism, classism, and sexism. This tendency is directly reflected by the titles of certain rediscovered films, such as The Half Breed and The Female of the Species, while other titles retrospectively seem to allude to these original sins of modern society, such as The Hidden Scar and The Unpardonable Sin. As Frozen Time’s first caption claims, “Film was born of an explosive”—a statement that’s literal, in reference to nitrate film’s highly flammable ingredients, and morally figurative. The explosions and burnings of theaters and film labs that Morrison documents often suggest that America’s id is boiling up over its simulacrum of civility.

As such, Frozen Time grapples with one of the supreme riddles of cinema: that it’s spiritually transcendent while existing as a fruit at least partially born of suppression. Morrison unsparingly elaborates on the atrocities of the Klondike Gold Rush, tracing its roots in the U.S. via the distribution trials of the nitrate films, riffing on various conspiracies such as the Black Sox scandal, which Morrison frames as an act of revolt on the part of the baseball players against contracts that limited their ability to compete for better pay. Morrison daringly rhymes this controversy with the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, in which the Colorado National Guard gunned down miners who were striking against John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. There’s an intersection between these conflicts: The first baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was a judge who was unsympathetic to labor rights, having deported socialists who protested WWI and the killing of Rockefeller’s miners.

The density of Frozen Time’s scope is often exhilaratingly overwhelming, but this obsession with minutiae and detail is the film’s subject, as Morrison elaborates on the very history that’s rewritten and discarded when people callously bury films or throw them away or send them floating down ice floes when spring weather permits. The interconnections between politics, art, sex, class, and money should be rendered as baffling intricacies, if one is to do the insidiousness of their emotional and infrastructural latticework justice. And the rediscovered films embody all these truths with deceptively airy ease, hiding fact in the plain sight of imagination.

Holding the sprawling Frozen Time together is Morrison’s brilliant editing, which compresses decades into single fades, locating recurring patterns of tragedy and irony, and the profound and obsessive formal power of the films discovered in Dawson City, which mix documentarian detail with an ecstatic sense of poetry. Water has stained many of these films, blotching the image with blobs that suggest a phantasmagoric energy that’s emanating from the actors and subjects as well as the troubled carnival atmosphere that willed this art into being. Faces and bodies are often strikingly clear, affording an element of quotidian recordkeeping, while backgrounds abound in explosions of ghostly white and inky black. Contextualizing information has been provided via on-screen words for a reason, so as not to disturb the otherworldliness of this footage with modern voiceover. The only sounds we hear are the hypnotic chords of Alex Somers’s score, which reaffirm Frozen Time as a requiem for a continent of ghosts who refuse to be buried.

Cast: Michael Gates, Kathy-Jones Gates Director: Bill Morrison Screenwriter: Bill Morrison Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2016 Buy: Video



Review: A Land Imagined Is a Noir-Tinged Rumination on Identity

Writer-director Yeo Siew Hua suggests that becoming another person is as easy as dreaming it.




A Land Imagined
Photo: MM2 Entertainment

Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined begins with an extended montage of looming buildings and structures, as well as work sites of Singapore’s vast land-reclamation projects. This simple visual motif effectively captures not only the sense of insignificance that comes with living in an urban center teeming with people (workers appear like dots within the wide shots), but also lays the groundwork for the film’s sudden shift in perspective.

Yeo’s Golden Leopard-winning film opens in dreamy noir-like fashion before blooming into a sobering social drama concerning the lives of Singapore’s ignored and exploited immigrant and working-class communities. After a police detective, Lok (Peter Yu), spends the first third of A Land Imagined searching for a missing construction worker, Wang (Liu Xiaoyi), Lok’s partner rhetorically asks why looking for a lowly laborer is worth the time and taxpayer money. Yeo makes an empathetic rebuttal to that thought by subsequently launching into a depiction of Wang and his downtrodden existence immediately before his disappearance.

Wang, though injured, can’t afford to miss work, so he continues to drive a shuttle for other workers. Through the depiction of Wang’s grinding daily routine and search for a side hustle, Yeo shows how the man is at the mercy of his employers. In keeping with the strain of noir from Lok’s storyline, the company Wang works for and whom the dredged land is ultimately for is an eerily nebulous entity, like something out of a Fritz Lang production. Wang appears as an unwitting pawn in a larger scheme, though, paradoxically, the moments of relative escape spent with a fellow worker, Ajit (Ishtiaque Zico), and the mysterious Mindy (Luna Kwok), the manager of a cybercafé Wang frequents, prove that he leads a life of his own.

The presence of the Bangladeshi Ajit in A Land Imagined and the fact that the undocumented Wang hails from mainland China are just two factors that point to Yeo’s grasp of Singapore as a globalized state with shifting notions of identity—an understanding that’s complemented by the film’s narrative structure, which shifts perspective between Lok and Wang throughout. Each character operates on the fringes of Singaporean society and deals with similar feelings of estrangement. At one point, Wang tells Mindy after a late-night swim at a local beach that the sand comes from various different countries around Singapore. And this idea of the island nation as not having a set identity is one that’s cannily rhymed to the film’s structure.

The shift back and forth between the narrative’s central characters, and how one of those characters is affected by the life of an itinerant worker, brings to mind João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s Araby, but A Land Imagined doesn’t contain itself completely to the realist tradition of that film. Yeo adopts a more ethereal approach, even implying early on that Lok’s storyline is a projection of dreams that Wang once had. The elliptical narrative, coupled with the explicitly noir passages—marked by stylized and shadowy cinematography—that follow Lok and Wang around a hazy and languid cityscape, give the impression that A Land Imagined exists in a kind of dream state. The film may be coy about definitively stating if Lok is Wang’s dream-self, but this question is ultimately irrelevant. In a diverse land where identity is inherently foggy, Yeo suggests that becoming another person is as easy as dreaming it.

Cast: Peter Yu, Liu Xiaoyi, Luna Kwok, Ishtiaque Zico, Jack Tan, Kelvin Ho Director: Yeo Siew Hua Screenwriter: Yeo Siew Hua Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Out of Blue Plays Out Like a New-Age Law & Order

Carol Morley’s film wants to blow our minds, but it succeeds only at rousing our boredom.




Out of Blue
Photo: IFC Films

Carol Morley’s Out of Blue begins with images of a supernova as an ostensibly brilliant astrophysicist, Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer), wonderingly intones that we’re all made of stardust. This meaningless observation, cribbed from Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” is an appropriate opening to a film that proves to be every bit as trite, over-reaching, and goofy as its opening lines. With its endless references to black holes, the multiverse, and Schrödinger’s cat—the last of which is outlined in detail not once but twice—Morley’s film wants to blow our minds, but it succeeds only at rousing boredom.

Loosely based on the novel Night Train by Martin Amis, Out of Blue attempts to combine the heady philosophizing of True Detective with the metaphorical surrealism of Twin Peaks, but Morley’s writing is so ham-handed and her directing so nondescript that the film ends up feeling more like a protracted new-age spin on Law & Order. It doesn’t speak well of Out of Blue that the film is at its most compelling when it’s just straight-up ripping off David Lynch’s stylistic idiosyncrasies, such as in a dream sequence where Jennifer lip-synchs to an old-timey country song on a bandstand that looks nearly identical to the Roadhouse stage.

The film’s plot is also suspiciously reminiscent of that of Twin Peaks: An enigmatic detective, Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson), investigates the brutal murder of a pretty young blonde (Gummer), which brings her into contact with an assortment of local oddballs. Out of Blue, though, lacks the regional specificity of Lynch’s series—Morley’s film is set in New Orleans but you wouldn’t know that from what’s on screen—and its eccentrics, some of them played by fascinating character actors like Toby Jones, Jacki Weaver, and James Caan, are vaguely drawn. But the biggest misstep is Mike herself, a cipher who spends much of Out of Blue muttering clues under her breath and staring into the middle distance.

Of course, Mike has a dark past herself, one which is intertwined with the mystery she’s trying to solve. Clarkson does her best to imbue the role with a certain offbeat gravitas, but Mike is too confusedly conceived to generate any real interest in her backstory, much less to carry the narrative. Morley hangs a lot of eccentricities on the character—she drives a vintage car, listens to the Eels, and, in one particularly baffling scene, climbs on stage at a strip club and starts writhing on the dancers—but none of these cohere into a comprehensible whole. All the way to the end of Out of Blue, Mike’s quirks exude a grab-bag-like feeling, ensuring that she remains an enigma amid the comings and goings of so many wacky side characters and all the pseudo-metaphysical blather of Morley’s muddled script.

Cast: Mamie Gummer, Patricia Clarkson, James Caan, Jacki Weaver, Toby Jones, Aaron Tveit, Jonathan Majors, Alyshia Ochse, Gary Grubbs, Yolonda Ross, Lucy Faust, Brad Mann, Thomas Francis Murphy, Carol Sutton, Lawrence Turner Director: Carol Morley Screenwriter: Carol Morley Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Genesis Lyrically Captures the Heartache of Sentimental Education

Philippe Lesage’s film understands that we submit ourselves to the perils of affection because of its outweighing graces.




Photo: Productions l'Unite Centrale

Writer-director Philippe Lesage follows up The Demons with another coming-of-age saga that fixates on the relatable, if grim, blues of self-awakening. Primarily following the teenaged Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin) and his college-aged sister, Charlotte (Noée Abita), Genesis charts how both are shaped by their experiences with sexual desire, subtly observing their behavior and, occasionally, the darker side of affection.

Guillaume commands much of the film’s attention. From the first shot, in which he stands on a desk in his all-boys boarding school and leads his mates in a barroom shanty, it’s obvious that Guillaume is a charismatic class clown who knows how to force all eyes onto himself. Yet the teen can also be withdrawn and introverted, and his relationships with his friends and teachers are constantly in flux. His puckish behavior is often celebrated by classmates and even some teachers, like the sardonic Perrier (Paul Ahmarani), who in one class invites Guillaume to do his impersonation of him, which the teen performs with hilarious specificity and to the initial delight and then discomfort of the professor.

Wounded by the boy’s exposure of his flaws, Perrier subsequently singles out Guillaume for harassment, berating him without cause and even screaming at the kid over the slightest perceived transgression. Guillaume’s peers are less extreme, but the same kids who applaud his classroom antics are also quick to ignore him inside their shared dorms or in social situations, content to simply use him for amusement during class time.

Guillaume’s awkward relationship to others at the boarding school is exacerbated by his closeted sexuality, which isolates him from the heteronormative activities of his friends. In one scene, Lesage films the boy in slow motion as he wanders through a house party surrounded by boys and girls kissing, trying to fit in by cautiously snaking his arm around a girl, who casually shrugs him off as he keeps walking. Like much of Genesis, the moment is at once thematically obvious and beautifully moving, with the sudden swell of morose pop transforming the scene into a lyrically intense expression of the boy’s sentimental education. The impeccable blocking places the other kids in every square inch of the room save for a pocket of dead space around Guillaume, poignantly emphasizing his loneliness.

Charlotte, by contrast, seems to have an easier time of things. More carefree and confident than her brother, she’s at first hampered only by her inane boyfriend, Maxime (Pier-Luc Funk), who broaches the subject of an open relationship with a forced sense of casual suggestion, only to later sobbingly backtrack after she kicks him to the curb. Charlotte ends up with the older Theo (Maxime Dumontier), whose charming demeanor and respectfulness suggests actual maturity. When Lesage films Charlotte in a club using the same slow-mo style that he did for Guillaume’s glum traipse through the house party, the tone is considerably brighter, with the young woman free and ebullient about her contentment.

Soon, however, Charlotte must also contend with the fallout of various sexual stresses. Lesage grapples with matters that are all too common to darker coming-of-age stories, and he captures the film’s most harrowing scenes in single takes. Yet if the filmmaker doesn’t shy away from plainly depicting such horrors as sexual violation, he avoids wallowing in the misery he piles onto his characters. Guillaume and especially Charlotte suffer, but Lesage pulls focus onto the aftershocks of trauma rather than the traumatic events themselves. Sometimes Genesis even ducks reinforcing the bleakest of expectations, as in a scene of Guillaume baring his soul to his classmates that ends in a surprisingly warm fashion.

Indeed, the bright colors and sedate direction of Genesis isn’t an ironic contrast for the difficult content within but a cue for the perseverance of hope in trying times. That optimism is borne out in the final act, which shifts focus to Felix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier), the protagonist of The Demons, now a cheery teen attending what appears to be a bible camp. As he plays guitar with counselors and plays around in camp, he gravitates toward Beatrice (Émilie Bierre), a young girl who’s clearly as interested in him as he is in her. Compared to the more vicious heartbreak facing Charlotte and Guillaume, Felix and Beatrice’s budding feelings are presented innocently and sweetly. Their first flirtations end the film on a hopeful note that suggests that not all stories of young self-discovery need be solemn, and that we submit ourselves to the perils of affection because of its outweighing graces.

Cast: Théodore Pellerin, Noée Abita, Édouard Tremblay-Grenier, Maxime Dumontier, Jules Roy Scicotte, Pier-Luc Funk, Paul Ahmarani, Antoine Marchand-Gagnon, Émilie Bierre Director: Philippe Lesage Screenwriter: Philippe Lesage Running Time: 130 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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