O Canada Blogathon 2020 – Dawson City:Frozen Time

Hearing that the O Canada Blogathon was back I was wanted to join up. What I needed was a subject. To find one I sifted through my mounds of unwatched Blu-rays and DVDs (some blind buys; some not). Upon doing that I knew the film I’d write about would be Dawson City: Frozen Time.

When I was young I would often study maps and the Yukon was one of the areas that fascinated me. The attraction had to do with its name, its remoteness, it nearness to the Arctic Circle, and also (probably on a subconscious level) that Dawson City was denoted on the map in what I could only assume was a sparsely populated area and it was not the territorial capital. 

The reason for Dawson City still being on a world map in the mid-to-late ‘80s, when I was young boy, looking them was that it was epicenter of the final great gold rush in world history.

The town was built so prospectors had somewhere to live, the local Hän tribe displaced. That was one of many things I learned in watching this documentary.

But its selection is about more than just facts gleaned, which were many.

The film opens interviewing the couple who made a discovery of the movie reels while excavating for new construction project in 1978. However, this is but a framing mechanism and what comes between these bookends and predominates the film is a mix of stills, archival footage, and Dawson City film finds, both newsreels and features, that tell the story of the town’s history either with events that locals witnessed via movie houses or reenacted through narrative features that were set in Dawson City. 

The impetus for the narrative crisscross is that in discussing the town you have to establish the find, the foundation of the city, the year-by-year stampede of prospectors north, followed by the dwindling population later. 

Dawson City’s apex population of 30,000 in 1898 and the fact that people from all walks of life came there in search of fortune made it such that it was a crossroads. The people who came through as the town boomed and what became of them after their time there also play a part in the story. 

To the nascent film industry Dawson City was a new market, so films came as people needed entertainment in all forms. However, Dawson was the end-of-the-line and films were slow to come there. Studios did not want the costs of shipping the film canisters back from the Yukon to California, so when local theaters were done with them the studios ordered the prints destroyed. 

The formerly flammable nature of film stock plays a part in some of Dawson City’s early tragic moments and gives this film its tagline: Film was born of an explosive.

The tragedy for film everywhere—one of the omnipresent in its early history—was shortsightedness. Many films were purposely destroyed, involuntarily burned, or merely decayed over time erasing much of the silent era’s output. A form of safety film was first developed in 1910 but not adopted until the early ’50s due to prohibitive costs—more shortsightedness. All this talk of film burning had me thinking of Cinema Paradiso when Alfredo, already blinded in a film fire, is introduced to safety film by Toto he laments that progress always comes too late. 

In the end the decision in Dawson City to not burn all the film and how it was finally stored helped preserve much of it paving the way for one of the most monumental film finds in motion picture history. More specifics than that are spare to preserve some other surprises, for the film which contains plenty (not that one could adequately describe the magic of this particular film in mere words, but my meager attempt is forthcoming).

This film separates itself in its aesthetic approach to its subject matter. Other films have used feature film footage as a stand-in for archival footage or dramatization; the essays in the booklet included with the Blu-ray by Lawrence Weschler, Vanity Fair,  and Alberto Zambenedetti highlight Los Angeles Plays Itself as a prime example. However, it is the other techniques that combine with this that make this film a unique and masterful work.

For long stretches of its running time Dawson City: Frozen Time functions as a silent film. The titles cards disseminate needed information about the images we are shown, without voice over. We go through the rise and fall of Dawson City as a hub of civilization.

Director Bill Morrison was one of the first people to view much of the recovered footage, and so, over the years developed an intimate relationship with it that allowed him to exploit it as well as he does here. 

The rapturous symphonic score by composer/multi-instrumentalist Alex Somers increases the immersive nature of the film. 

A general interest audience will be captivated alone by how disparate folks like Fred Trump, grandfather of Donald, had his first financial success there; Tex Rickard, founder of the New York Rangers, passed through; Robert Service, poet and Jack London, novelist, found inspiration there; Calamity Jane, made a splash; Klondike Kate, of course, got her name there and there’s a pub not too far from me bearing her name a mere 3,917 miles away; the Carnegies, Guggenheims, and more all crossed paths at the top of the world.

The connections to the film industry and its history don’t stop with a couple thousand rediscovered film reels: Alexander Pantages and Sid Grauman both had their humble starts in Dawson City. Perhaps, most amazing to me was the reference to the 1957 Academy Award winning documentary short City of Gold, which tells the tale of Dawson City’s gold rush, but more influentially pioneered the pan and zoom techniques on still photos that Ken Burns would later make famous and make a staple of documentary filmmaking.

A few years ago when cutting a documentary for my local church I learned that Final Cut Pro now has a function called Ken Burns that facilitates usage of the aforementioned technique. So if you’ve used that software recently you’ve felt the influence of Dawson City, too, albeit in a very indirect way. 

Toward its conclusion the film becomes transcendent upon entering a montage of Dawson City film finds that are in various stages of water damage and other forms of decay. The imperfections of the film, scratched, nebulous, nearly abstracted images dance to the crescendo in the score. Being able to see part of an image that was previously lost is better than nothing. The visual image in a motion picture can be—and often is—beautiful even when imperfect. Hairs not removed from the gate live forever in the recorded image. Some older films will always have Nelson Spots or cigarette burns on them. Pristine images are ideal, but there is a majesty, power, and poetry to decayed film that still survives through the ages, preserving a moment in time.

It is the fact that this film can tell the story of the Gold Rush; how it created Dawson City; who came and left and how those people experienced the world; how the film was found and also celebrate celluloid itself that makes this work so special.

Decasia (2002)

The essays included with the Blu-ray also made me aware of a film I had not heard of by Morrison called Decasia. Decasia is a portmanteau of “decay” and “fantasy” and it plays with the idea of this kind of montage for a feature. The fact that Morrison made a whole film in this motif and blends a similar sequence seamlessly into a film that already tackles so much is remarkable.

Morrison’s Decasia was the first film released in the 21st Century to be added to the National Film Registry. It would not surprise me if this film ends up there someday also. It’s a story about a small town in the Yukon, but also all of Canada, all of America, and all of cinema. So much stemming out of such a small town is a miraculous thing, as is the discovery of the film, as is Dawson City: Frozen Time. 

10 comments

  1. Silver Screenings · March 6

    Thanks for sharing this incredible story, and for reviewing this film. I’ve got to see this ASAP – it sounds poetic and intriguing.

    Thank you for joining the blogathon and for putting this film on my radar. 🙂

    • bernardovillela · March 7

      It most definitely is both those things. You’re welcome, bringing certain films to other people’s attention is one of the best things about writing about them.

  2. A fascinating documentary as well as link to the past. Your article will do much to enlighten my next viewing of the film.

  3. DCFT team · March 7

    Hi Bernardo, hello from the Dawson City: Frozen Time team! great piece but one big factual error- the score is by Alex Somers (not Michael Gordon) – could you correct this? Thanks!

    • bernardovillela · March 7

      It is done. My apologies for the error and thank you for bringing it to my attention.

      Sincerely,

      Bernardo

  4. Hi, Bernardo,
    Splendid article about DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME! I agree that it would be no surprise for it eventually to end up on the National Film Registry. Thank you for sharing your review.
    Please pardon the pedantry, but I noticed a slight inaccuracy: It wasn’t Donald Trump’s *father*, but his *grandfather* who found success in the Klondike.
    Now following on Twitter, btw. ☺

  5. Virginie Pronovost · March 8

    This was a great read and the film sounds very interesting! I’m curious to see it now.

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