Notes on a Celluloid Gold Mine

Dawson City: Frozen Time, directed by Bill Morrison

The history of culture is a negotiation between what we already know and what we still have to find out. Every once in a while a discovery is made that adds something new to that elusive process. In 1968 the New York Public Library announced that it had in its possession the edited manuscript of TS Eliot’s canonical poem, The Waste Land, first published in 1922. In 2014 the manuscript for Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major was found in a library in Budapest. The score had been published in 1784, but the original manuscript in the composer’s hand was thought to have been lost. Discoveries like these offer the possibility of reinventing the past.

In 1978 the history of film experienced one of those changes. A backhoe operator in Dawson City, Yukon, was excavating a site that had once been the town’s skating rink. When he noticed that his shovel was turning up a number of metal containers, he stopped working. His close attention and caution resulted in the recovery of 372 lost films, copies of which are now in the collections of Library and Archives Canada and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The Dawson City Film Find, as it is officially designated, is without question one of the most significant film discoveries since the invention of the medium. In Dawson City: Frozen Time, 2017, the American filmmaker Bill Morrison uses the documentary form to relate how these films came to be preserved. It is as close to unbelievable as any story can get.

In going through 533 reels of film, Morrison realized that the amount of material presented the option to tell a more complicated story. The Klondike Gold Rush starts in 1898, which is also the year that large-scale cinema projectors come into use, so one focus became the confluence of gold and the history of cinema in Dawson City. But as he looked at the scope of the newsreel footage in the archive, he recognized that he could also construct what he called “a condensed version of the story of capitalism.” One story proliferated as a number of stories. “I liken it to a jigsaw puzzle,” he says. “I knew where some of the corners and edges were but there were some crucial pieces of the puzzle that remained open until the very end.”

The frame of the puzzle was Dawson City itself and the Klondike Gold Rush, which began in 1896 when gold was discovered at Rabbit Creek, a small tributary of the Klondike River. In less than two years the small town of only a few hundred had grown into a city of 40,000 people. It didn’t take very long for the dream of Klondike gold to turn into a nightmare. More than 100,000 “stampeders” would set out to cross the Chilkoot Pass on their way to Dawson City; over 70,000 turned back and many died.

Morrison needed to set the stage for the story of Dawson City, so we are eight and a half minutes into the film before we actually see the opening credits. We get a summary of the history and manufacture of gun cotton, the standard explosive used in military warheads in the late 19th century; we are told about Eastman Kodak’s transformation of gun cotton into nitrate film; we are warned about its combustibility (it is estimated that 75 per cent of all silent films have been lost); and we learn about the Lumière Brothers’ development of the cinematographe, a combined motion picture camera and projector. We are also given information about the first fire from nitrate film. In 1897 a projector ignited a film reel and burned down the Bazar de la Charité in Paris, claiming 125 lives, mostly women. Fire is a constant presence in Dawson City: Frozen Time, and before its 120 minutes are over, Morrison will document 10 major fires caused by nitrate film worldwide. He has plenty of evidence to corroborate his flaming litany. The business district of Dawson City burned down every year for the first eight years of the city’s existence.

If the story of the Dawson City Film Find involved heat, there wouldn’t be a story to tell, were it not for the cold. Dawson City was at the end of the distribution chain for the film studios and it was prohibitively expensive to return the films. Instead of destroying them or tossing them into the Yukon River, an employee at the Canadian Bank of Commerce, who also happened to be the treasurer of the amateur hockey league, decided to use the stockpile of film canisters as landfill underneath the town’s hockey rink. The films remained there until they were unearthed in 1978. A number of them suffered irreparable water damage, but the onsite archivists were able to save 372. The permafrost was the film’s preservative.

Morrison has a special appreciation for damaged and disintegrating film, and in Dawson City: Frozen Time he found a cinematic gold mine. There is so much material that it becomes a kind of mother load. He takes actresses and actors in the found films and recasts them in his telling of the Dawson City story. When the documentary deals with the decision to use the films as landfill, he chooses a scene from A Girl’s Folly, 1917, where a director on a raised platform is preparing to shoot a scene. All around him stagehands are busily carrying trunks that are props in the original film, but in Morrison’s repurposing they become evidence of the disposal of the landfill films. In an inter-title from another film we see the words “Buried Alive,” and Morrison picks up the idea and cuts to a sequence of scenes where women look pensive and concerned; the films, and the celluloid women in them, have been anthropomorphized in their concern for the material fate of film, which is their own destiny as well.

But Morrison goes one step further: he shifts to another cluster of scenes where people are sleeping, as if to forget the fate of cinema, and then to a number of burial scenes. The film uses this kind of association both as narrative thrust and as a way of telling other stories. It is easy to understand why. The Klondike attracted characters who could have been sent by central casting: Alex Pantages starts out as a bartender and becomes the owner of 70 theatres across North America; Sid Grauman is a young newsboy who ends up the owner of Grauman’s Chinese Theater; William Desmond Taylor, a timekeeper for Yukon Gold Company, becomes a silent film director who is murdered in his Los Angeles home in 1922, the victim of an unsolved murder; and the writers Jack London and Robert Service will mine the place for stories. There are also local characters, like Apple Jimmy Oglow, who sold 30,000 apples at $1.00 apiece in 1898, and Chief Isaac, the leader of the Han, the displaced Klondike clan, who became the mayor of Moosehide. He is a magnificent figure who lives to be 85. These individuals are like unique anecdotes in a conversation.

But Morrison’s tendency to layer his narrative takes the main story off-focus. Rather than being a less-is-more kind of filmmaker, he is decidedly in the more-is-not-enough camp. When he wants to indicate how popular films had become in Dawson City, he links a chain of scenes in which patrons enter theatres and sit in their seats. They include everything from an elegant couple in DW Griffith’s 1912 film called Brutality, to an intoxicated man from the 1918 film The Half Breed (many of the films are redolent with prejudice and stereotypes). This audience sequence sets up the line “The world outside the Yukon filtered through their screens,” which Morrison takes as permission to reflect inside his own narrative the range of that outside world. The film goes on a romp that includes science (gelatinous frog’s eggs and the patterns of beautiful flowers), sociology (women’s hairstyles in different cultures, and Asian acrobats and African dancers), and modes of modern mobility (we see road races, bicycle races, horse races, ships being launched and air balloons lifting off).

Before long the story of Dawson City broadens out into the story of 20th-century political injustice, and we are given labour strife, anarchist bombings, trench warfare from World War I and instructions on how grenades are made. If I tell you that all this will connect to the deportation of left-wing dissidents to Russia, the Chicago White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series, the appointment of Judge Landis as baseball’s first commissioner and the Silent Parade in New York in 1917 when African Americans marched to protest the violence they were subjected to nationally, I can understand your skepticism. But Morrison traces his own thin red line with these narrative details as part of his condensed version of capitalism, and his digressions are almost always interesting.

On one occasion this leads him to include a list of films that got to Dawson City years after they were made. We read that they could take two or three years to get there, but the examples he gives indicate that many took four and even five years. He lists 22 films, when a half-dozen would have been sufficient. The list is meant to underline the scale of the film find, but it ends up being more numbing than instructive.

Morrison’s faults, though, belong to an enthusiast, and are easily forgiven. Most often, his judgment is impeccable. The film concludes with a sequence of scenes that use carefully chosen moments from the found films to enact the Dawson City story. In The Butler and the Maid, 1912, a woman’s hand reaches out to a man from the flickering, degraded edge of the film, and urges him to come into her dissolving world. He refuses, leaving the necessity of dealing with film’s fate in the hands and bodies of women. The mother load becomes a motherlode.

The film puts up an inter-title from The Salamander, 1916, which informs us that among the ancients, the salamander was “a mythical creature that lived through fire unscorched.” We see a nymph-like figure dancing around a water fountain—she embodies the trial by water that film has undergone in Dawson City. In the final sequence we see a performance from Pathé Weekly, 1914, in which Florence Fleming Noyes, an American suffragette, performs a scarf dance dressed as the figure of Liberty. Because of the serious flaring on both sides of the film, she appears to be moving in and out of what look like flames. She pulls the scarf from around her head and uses it as a swirling veil in a dance of intense passion. At the end, she seems triumphant, even ecstatic. In Morrison’s view of the world of cinema, women end the film because they embody film’s memory of itself. It is not narcissism but a commitment to preservation.

Within months of Dawson City’s founding, the Canadian Bank of Commerce established a branch there and built a grand new building. They came with a million dollars’ worth of banknotes, and a short month later, it shipped out as Dawson gold. But there were notes of a different kind connected to Dawson City: Frozen Time as well. They were heard in Winnipeg’s Knox United Church as the final event in the 2018 New Music Festival. Jazz Winnipeg and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra co-sponsored this world premiere of the music Alex Somers wrote for the film, and Maestro Alexander Mickelthwate conducted the 11 musicians and 16-member choir with energetic precision. The film is two hours long, and music covers every corner and edge. Mostly it worked. But as with the Klondike gold and the filmmaker’s penchant for narrative layering, there was just too much opportunity. In a surfeit situation, sometimes what you most want to hear is the sound of silence. ❚