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 revelation emanating from inside one’s own head.
Of course there is no such thing as a pristine story—every story is tangled up with other stories—but few are entangled with each other at many junctures. And however unlikely any intersections between them would seem, the history of film, the modern world’s most glamorous medium, and the history of Dawson City, a rough-and-tumble town in the wilds of northwest Canada, impinge upon each other repeatedly over the course of a century.
As it happens, the invention of motion picture film and the founding of Dawson City were roughly contemporaneous. In 1889 Eastman Kodak figured out how to turn cellulose nitrate, an explosive used in munitions, into a flexible plastic that could be coated with a light-sensitive emulsion. In 1896 prospectors established Dawson City in the area where the Yukon and the Klondike rivers meet, which also happened to have been for millennia the seasonal hunting and fishing ground, called Tr’ochëk, of the indigenous Hän-speaking people. Consequently the indigenous village was relocated a few kilometers downriver.
Of the first 100,000 prospectors who swarmed over the treacherous Chilkoot Pass toward gold, 70,000 died or turned back. Those who made it over the pass built boats to sail down the Yukon, and by 1897, five tons of gold had been sent out of Dawson City. The extremes to which humans will go in the pursuit of wealth are depicted in harrowing images of the seemingly endless procession of men staggering through the snow up the pass, each man hauling his requisite two thousand pounds of gear and supplies; of men bombarded by an avalanche; of men sprawled, dying, in the snow; of steamers packed with men and horses.
And what was a prospector to do after sundown? Alert entrepreneurs were quick to devise entertainments to siphon off profits. We see the brothel run by Frederick Trump—the foundation of the Trump family fortune—in the town of Whitehorse en route to Dawson, mobs of men in Dawson’s saloons and gambling halls, a line of prostitutes in an alley, gold dust being weighed out for drinks…
Many of these images from the earliest days of Dawson City are heart-stopping stills by the photographer Eric Hegg, hundreds of which were preserved and discovered through the same sort of hair’s-breadth coincidences that salvaged the buried films. The Gold Rush was abundantly documented, and with its florid exhibitions of greed, ingenuity, courage, violence, passion, ambition, exploitation, and the will to survive against virtually impossible odds, it provided an irresistible setting for many early Hollywood movies.
The documentary and the fictional materials reverberate uncannily together, creating a sort of delirious extra dimension. It’s eerie to glimpse Hollywood’s depictions of the Gold Rush world of white-knuckled card games, backwoods melodrama, disreputable high life, bar brawls, and so on, when we have already seen something of the actuality—or to watch Charlie Chaplin floundering up his California-filmed facsimile of the Chilkoot Pass. If anything, the shock quotient of the documentary footage outstrips Hollywood’s lurid inventions, but the lurid inventions are not only riveting in themselves, they provide an unsettling counterpoint to the documentary footage—a funhouse-mirror view that’s no less convincing than what it reflects; it seems as though the feverish reality is having a consolatory hallucination of itself.
A downright weird roster of familiar personalities drifted through Dawson City in unexpected roles, as in a dream—Sid Grauman (later of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre) showed up in the capacity of newsboy, the writer Robert Service as a bank clerk. The town swelled and shrank dramatically, depending on its dramatically fluctuating expectations. And there were fires, which destroyed Dawson City’s business district every year for its first nine years and continued to flare up periodically.
News of a gold strike in Nome, Alaska, in 1899 reduced the population of Dawson to one quarter of the size it had been two years earlier when it was settled, but almost immediately ample new veins were struck around Dawson. Those who had stayed settled in with confidence and sent for their families. In 1900 a courthouse, a library, and a wholesome recreation center were built. In 1901 the almost comically sanitized town closed its gambling halls and banished prostitution to Klondike City, on the recent site of the Hän camp, Tr’ochëk, which in any case had been ruined by mining as a hunting and fishing ground.
Soon, mining was controlled by dredging companies, and then by one dredging company, and miners became more or less redundant. By 1910, the population of Dawson had been reduced again, this time by two thirds, but its recreational and cultural resources were vastly amplified by Hollywood, where a few prints were being made of every new movie. Each print would make its way slowly from town to town along a designated distribution route, one of which terminated, two or three years down the line, at Dawson (now a town of less than five thousand people). By 1911, the town had three movie theaters, where hundreds of films were screened over the course of a year.
At a certain point in his story, Morrison melds us with Dawson’s movie theater audiences, and together we look outward at the wide world beyond the Klondike. In clips from silent newsreels and feature films we get to see the turbulent early decades of the twentieth century hurtle by. Weapons are manufactured and transported for use in World War I; at the behest of mine owner John D. Rockefeller Jr., the Colorado National Guard opens fire on striking miners, killing two dozen men, women, and children; elephant races are conducted in India; the Silent Parade, 8,000 to 15,000 strong, organized by, among others, W.E.B. Dubois, marches along Fifth Avenue to protest violence against African-Americans; actors in Hollywood smooch, cheat, listen behind doors, and swoon; Alexander Berkmann addresses the huge membership of the Industrial Workers of the World.
We witness evidence—visible for the first time in the excavated films—of the 1919 World Series–fixing scandal. And we see in action the distinguished, glittery-eyed anti-labor zealot Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was credited with cleaning up baseball after the scandal as well as with solidifying racism in the game, and who exuberantly imprisoned or deported labor leaders, war resisters, and socialists.
The films we are glimpsing were recorded on cellulose nitrate—the sibling of the military explosive—but we now watch them on a newer sort of film, an acetate stock that is not likely to burst into flames and burn down the theater where we are sitting.* Not only can nitrate film be set alight by a projector, it is liable to combust spontaneously and rage on violently even if entirely submerged in water. It was prized for its luminosity and beautiful blacks—and it was significantly cheaper than the form of safety film that was developed just around the time movies started to arrive in Dawson City. It wasn’t until about 1950—after numerous film fires had destroyed vast amounts of property and stored films and had cost many lives—that safety film was widely used.
As it was difficult to transport anything to and from the Yukon (at one time Dawson City’s garbage was left on the ice-covered river to float itself out of town in the spring thaw), and as distributors weren’t eager to pay to ship back copies of films that were two or three years out of date by the time they showed in Dawson City, the problem arose of what to do with the lethally volatile superannuated amusements. In 1931 the introduction of talkies to Dawson City was the coup de grâce for Dawson’s stored silent films. Quantities were dumped into the Yukon, others were set ablaze, and the rest were dealt with in the way that Morrison reveals over the course of Dawson City: Frozen Time.
No matter how often it happens, it’s always startling to be reminded how poorly thought out and haphazardly executed are so many things critical to our well-being. But the outlandish inventiveness of history is flabbergasting, and it’s pure joy to watch the way Morrison—building toward a riotous crescendo of intercut feature and documentary clips—proceeds to disclose the casual and harebrained expedients that just happened to result in the preservation of these precious films.
Morrison is an artist before a documentarian, and those who are familiar with his work—or even only with his most widely seen film, Decasia (2002)—will be aware of his appetite for damaged nitrate film, its visual fecundity and druggy narrative potential, and the ravishing beauty he can elicit from it. In Decasia he exploits its capacities to create—or, as it seems, unleash—stories struggling to emerge from the image, to expand and critique the intended story; competing narratives inseparably joined; phantom, muffled, urgent commentary.
The Dawson City films were better preserved than the films Morrison used in Decasia. The sort of damage they sustained does not, for the most part, share the others’ buckling, erupting, protean quality. Nonetheless, damaged film of any sort is bound to honor the unseen—what is obscured, what has been soiled, what is dying, what lives beyond the confines of our senses. Our obstructed view of what is missing suggests a coded story, cryptic but vital.
The eternal, macabre romance between life and death, generation and devastation, the abiding and the evanescent, is everywhere in Dawson City: Frozen Time. One of the most shattering things I’ve ever seen on film is the sustained footage of the exhausted earth, tortured and depleted by mining. And one of the most poignant is the portrait of the region and its inhabitants—including Chief Isaac of the Hän—in later years reduced virtually to theme-park representations of themselves. At the heart of Dawson City: Frozen Time are, of course, the resurrected fragments of an immolated world, the bewitching ghosts once again manifesting their passionate fantasies.
The film’s essence is echo, paradox, allusion—the lust for gold that drove hundreds of thousands toward the top of the world only to perish; film, the history-altering substance that records, informs, preserves, gives joy, consumes itself, and kills; Dawson City, the town that sprang up on frozen land, flourishing by impoverishing another population; the cyclical catastrophes from which it continued to rebuild itself. Not only are both nitrate film and Dawson City expressions of humanity’s irrepressible creativity, they are also both expressions of humanity’s irrepressible destructiveness.
It’s chastening to witness the pliant material of history as it’s being made and at the same time what that history has come to mean and what it has brought into being. That the Dawson City archive made its way to us through the frozen earth reminds us how inestimably much vanishes. What endures casts an ephemeral shadow—that insistent, spectral commentator, the future, which asks us to consider what subsequent generations will see in surviving records of our own life that is invisible to us now.
Deborah Eisenberg’s latest collection of short stories is “Your Duck Is My Duck.” She is also the author of a play, “Pastorale. ”
*Dawson City: Frozen Time is best seen on a large screen, obviously, with a good sound system. But if you’re in no mood to wait until it’s shown on one (for example at the Museum of Modern Art, which owns a stunning print), your laptop will do.