Dawson City: Frozen Time (2017; Bill Morrison)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, July 14, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
A stunning work of curation from documentary filmmaker Morrison, a story of fortune, folly, film and fire preserved in permafrost.
When the Yukon Gold Rush struck in the last 1890s, the remote Alaskan town of Dawson City boomed to a population of over 40,000, and numerous theaters sprang up to entertain idle stampeders. Dawson City’s population dwindled when the gold rush skipped town, but enough residents remained to support a couple of silent movie houses.
The outpost became the last stop along the theatrical exhibition trail, often receiving films years after their release. Therefore, the studios refused to pay to have the highly flammable nitrate prints shipped back. Instead, discarded film stock was dumped under an ice hockey rink and forgotten for decades. When the treasure trove got unearthed during renovation, it uncovered hundreds of silent movies presumed lost.
Morrison does dramatic justice to the Dawson City story, a rise-and-fall epic that weaves in enough turn-of-the-century celebrities to satisfy E.L. Doctorow, without overindulging in precious recreations.
Many assemblage documentaries of this sort strike me as obtusely opportunistic and reductive (e.g., it was the 1930’s, so insert any random shot of jitterbugging flappers). However, Morrison creates something wistfully beautiful with Dawson City: Frozen Time. His respect for both cinema and history shines through.