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