Celluloid nitrate, the medium of the first motion pictures, is a direct descendent of a military explosive. Stored improperly, it spontaneously bursts into flame. Most of it has burned or been lost. But some reels in the Yukon have survived an improbable life, death and rebirth. Filmmaker Bill Morrison lets the film itself tell its story, in his ingenious, mesmerizing documentary, Dawson City: Frozen Time.
Early on, the camera pans over sepia stills of shiny celluloid ribbons, tangled and looped through debris. “Lengths of film lying thither and yon,” is how a jovial museum curator describes what Dawson City’s backhoe operator dug up in 1979. How exactly did these films wind up in the Yukon, buried in rubble, and then rediscovered? The story unfolds slowly, part mystery, part origin myth, part elegy. As we watch nitric acids pour like quicksilver and steel machines churning clear, viscous liquid celluloid, an ethereal soundtrack (by Alex Somer) intones slow orchestral phrases, epic and minor-key, as if we are witnessing the origins of an elemental and vagarious god. Largely wordless, edited almost entirely from Dawson’s trove of rediscovered silent films, plus archival materials and old home movies, Dawson City charts the rises and falls of this gold rush town, as a native fishing village becomes a city of gold-hungry men and their bars, their brothels, and, eventually, their cinemas. In the process, Morrison’s film also charts the evolution of early film itself, and compellingly aligns two grand human enterprises: the search for gold, and the will to make movies.
Dawson City’s slowness and lack of spoken words is hypnotic. Onscreen titles (designed by Galen Johnson) provide most of the verbal narrative, in phrases as simple and primal as a myth or a children’s story. And accompanying the archival footage of the Alaskan gold rush, in a brilliant b-roll move, are clips of later films about the gold rush — Pure Gold and Dross (1913), Klondike Holiday (1950), City of Gold (1957) — in which glamorous women wink and languish, in which men gamble and bend their faces to creeks.
The archival material is exquisite and wide-ranging — still portraits of prospectors; field images of tiny men and dogs snaking up a mountain pass. In one image, taken after a fatal avalanche, the dead and living alike, in their dark coats, are so stark against such a depthless white that they appear to be floating in midair. And we watch Dawson change, from a land nestled between pristine bends of rivers to a city of taverns and telegraph lines, and, beyond, a muddy landscape ravaged by men digging for treasure.
Morrison’s project embraces a fascinating circularity — it’s a film about film and gold, told via films about gold — that gains an uncanny momentum assome surprising Yukon-Hollywood connections come full circle. And as long as it’s existed, Dawson City reminds us, film has been a powerful — perhaps double-edged — medium of discovery, ambition, and capture. Those early reels preserve beauty, and they also burned buildings to the ground. The parallel with gold becomes especially acute as the story turns to what we do to the things that are means to ends, or that are no longer profitable — the rivers dredged for gold, the hundreds of silent reels that are thrown downriver, once talkies arrive.
And yet, even what has been damaged can hold a strange beauty. Near the end of the film, in a damaged reel, we watch a woman dance with a sheer scarf. As she moves in and out of the ghostly white, undulating her arms, she might be trying to put out flames, and she might be trying to fan them.
Dawson City: Frozen Time | Dir:Bill Morrison | Mon, August 14 7 pm | Co-presentation by Kinonik at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland | $8 | http://www.space538.org/events/dawson-city-frozen-time
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