History can only be written based on what we know about the past, and it’s sobering to pause and think about how incomplete that knowledge really is. Even a fairly young field such as film history must work with an incomplete archival record—not every film survived, not every surviving film is known to every historian, and not every film that is known is considered worthy of study—and both randomness and bias influence what is considered when people talk about “film.” It’s no secret that many early films were lost, for instance, because they were regarded as merely commercial items to be shipped from one theatre to another and shown until they were completely worn out. Or until popular taste dictated they were no longer of interest, as was the case with silent films once talkies became available. Their final destination was often an obscure, “end of the line” location like the Gold Rush town of Dawson City, Canada, where they would be discarded when they were perceived to have no further commercial value.
In 1978, during excavations for a new building, a backhoe operator came across a buried treasure trove of old nitrate film from the 1910s and 1920s, many of which were remarkably well preserved thanks to the region’s cold temperatures (Dawson City is just south of the Arctic Circle). Preservation efforts saved 533 reels of film, which are referred to as the Dawson City Find. Those films, along with some stills and a lot of historical information provided via on-screen text (analogous to what you might hear via voice-of-God narration in an old-school documentary), form the heart of Bill Morrison’s documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time.
The varied nature of the films in the Dawson Find offer an important lesson on the sometimes random nature of what survives and gets written into history, and what doesn’t. Well-known actors and directors (Lionel Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, Tod Browning) co-exist along actors and directors you have never heard of, and well-known historical events (the 1917 Black Sox scandal) are documented in newsreels alongside the more obscure (lots of local fires, a bias still evident today in television news coverage today). Fred Trump (Donald’s grandfather) even pops up—he and partner Fred Levine ran “The Arctic Hotel and Restaurant” (and brothel, according to Morrison), in the Yukon town of Whitehorse. There were a lot of newsreels and similar materials preserved in the Dawson Find, offering a reminder of how integral newsreels were to the film-going experience in the early 20th century.
Not surprisingly, many of the films in the Dawson Find are damaged, but filmmaker Bill Morrison treats the patterns thus created as their own kind of poetry. Indeed, the facts surrounding this historic find often take a back seat to the visual compositions and juxtapositions in which Morrison takes obvious pleasure. And because silent movies were practically never truly silent, Dawson City is provided with a soundtrack by Alex Somers that provides a perfect counterpart to the images on screen.
Dawson City: Frozen Time is distributed on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber. Extras include a short documentary expanding on some topics related to the film (10 min.), a video interview with filmmaker Bill Morrison (9 min.), a selection from the Dawson Film Find (including newsreels and short films), the film’s trailer, and an illustrated booklet including essays by Lawrence Weschler and Alberto Zambenedetti. | Sarah Boslaugh