'Dawson City: Frozen Time' Serves Up A Fever Dream Of Cinema History
Documentary is a true found footage film
"Forgotten Silver" (1995)
"The Forbidden Room" (2015)
The horror genre has turned found footage films into a tired gimmick, but the documentary "Dawson City: Frozen Time" (playing for one week at Digital Gym Cinema starting Friday) shows the breathtaking allure of a true found footage film.
You can’t make up stories like this.
Filmmaker Bill Morrison had heard tales of film being found in a swimming pool up in Canada. He half believed it and half thought it was a crazy urban myth. But truth can be stranger than fiction and a collection of some 500 films dating from the 1910s and 1920s (and which were lost for over 50 years) were discovered buried in a sub-arctic swimming pool underneath a hockey rink deep in the Yukon Territory.
The Dawson City Collection, as it has come to be known, was uncovered in 1978 when a new recreation center was being built and a bulldozer accidentally uncovered film cans. Dawson City rests on a bed of permafrost, which proved to be an ideal environment to keep unstable and combustible nitrate film safe. (Check out Cinema Junkie Podcast 117 all about the beauty and danger of nitrate.)
Morrison does include amazing footage from another documentary called “The Romance of Celluloid” to explain how film was born of an explosive, and he shows how this highly combustible film stock was manufactured, and how if it does ignite it burns ferociously (it produces its own oxygen and supposedly can burn underwater, but Morrison does not offer an example of that).
He eventually discovered that some of the footage had been digitally captured and was available for him to view. That’s when he began forming the idea of “Dawson City: Frozen Time.”
Morrison is an experimental filmmaker who creates what can truly be called "found footage films" because he works with film that has been discovered, and then he repurposes it to tell a new story. He named his company Hypnotic Pictures for a reason. He believes in the spellbinding quality of these found images and creates films that find a beguiling sense of poetry.
In “Decasia” he uses decaying archival film footage to create a creepy and haunting mediation about the transient nature of all things. Some of the images in "Decasia" images are actually more nightmare inducing than most horror films. In “The Great Flood,” he uses silent film images to recount the story of the Mississippi River Flood of 1927. And in “The Miners’ Hymn” he also employs archival materials to look at the ill-fated mining towns of North East England.
For “Dawson City” he uses the found footage to tell both a history of the town and of cinema itself. The town was settled in 1896 and became the center of the Klondike Goldrush that brought prospectors in by the tens of thousands. The Dawson Amateur Athletic Association opened in 1902 and provided a venue to screen films. The city soon became the final destination in the film distribution chain, and because it was costly to ship 35mm prints and no one cared about the films after they had completed their runs, many films came to Dawson City and never left.
In an era of digital technology and on-demand viewing, we can forget the romance and magic of the physical medium of film and its power to enthrall us. Morrison’s film reminds us of all this. His images often have water damage that dances around the edges of the frame in alternately beautiful and creepy ways. Outside of a brief couple interviews at the start of the film, “Dawson City” is almost completely wordless. Occasional text identifies the titles and dates of films and other information, and the soundtrack is rich with an original score by Alex Somers and sound design by John Somers. The end result of Morrison’s approach is to create a hallucinogenic experience in which you feel transported out of the real world.
Initially, you think “Dawson City: Frozen Time” is a formless collage of images but a narrative and structure do develop and engage you in surprising ways. The experience is so rooted in sound and image that words fail to capture its unique allure. All I can do is urge you to venture out and sample this delicious cinematic fever dream for yourself and maybe you will fall in love with movies all over again.
Listen to my interview with Bill Morrison on Cinema Junkie Podcast 120.
And here are some Cinema Junkie recommendations for escaping bad summer movies.