After the Gold Rush

Dawson City: Frozen Time

a documentary film written and directed by Bill Morrison
Kino Lorber
Louise Lovely in The Social Buccaneer (1916), from Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time

It’s estimated that all copies of about 75 percent of silent films have perished, taking with them heaven knows how much memory of an era. In 1978 a significant portion of that memory was recovered by chance when a Pentecostal minister with a backhoe unearthed the last known remnants of 372 silent films from the 1910s and 1920s, as he was excavating a lot behind Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, a gambling hall in the Yukon’s Dawson City. Just how those films came to turn up there is the question that initiates Bill Morrison’s astounding Dawson City: Frozen Time.

Dawson City: Frozen Time is nominally a documentary—it is a documentary—but describing it as a documentary is something like describing Ulysses as a travel guide to Dublin. The film is transfixing, an utterly singular compound of the bizarre, the richly informative, the thrilling, the horrifying, the goofy, the tragic, and the flat-out gorgeous.

The structure of the film is confoundingly complex; its content spans vast, looping, and twisting territory, and yet watching it one soars along, as if skiing on a Möbius strip. It fits into no category I can think of, and is remarkable for, among other things, its plenitude of objectives and the sheer strangeness of its effect. When it ends, one feels that one has awakened from vivid and transporting dreams, activated, aloft, sharpened—one’s mind enlarged and freer.

Morrison takes us from the discovery of the buried film in 1978 back to the late nineteenth century, and then moves forward through time, tracing the intricate concatenation of improbable circumstances that brought the trove to the peculiar place where it was found. The intertwined stories involved are, on the one hand, the story of Dawson City and, on the other hand, the story of film stock. Those who, like me, have never had a discernible interest in either subject stand to be reminded that pretty much anything is fascinating if we can see just how it fits into just what. The light Morrison sheds on his possibly unpromising-sounding material reveals a gleaming parable of human folly.

Dawson City: Frozen Time opens in the recent past, in color and with voices, and gives us the short-lived impression that we’ll be watching a conventional documentary. But most of it is black-and-white silent footage—predominantly fragments of the exhumed films ingeniously stitched together to tell its own tale. Photographs from the same period, supplementing the film clips, seem to come to life as the camera pans over and zooms into them. Titles provide information when necessary. The voiceless unfolding of history in front of our eyes, unmediated by spoken commentary, feels breathlessly intimate, and the mesmerizing, otherworldly score and sound design, by Alex Somers, intensifies the sensation that one is experiencing, rather than watching, a vision or…

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