A Damaged History of Film: Bill Morrison Discusses "Dawson City: Frozen Time"

The filmmaker talks about piecing together his newest film from a collection of water-damaged silent reels found buried in the Yukon ice.
Jill Blackmore Evans

Bill Morrison's Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016) is showing September 25 – October 25, 2018 on MUBI in most countries around the world.

Dawson City: Frozen Time

In 1978, in Dawson City, Yukon, construction work unearthed something unexpected: inside a swimming pool, below the town’s old recreation center, were hundreds of reels of silent films. In 1929, when the pool had been filled in and replaced with a hockey rink, the reels had been used as infill. They had suffered water damage, but not so much as to be unwatchable, which was lucky, because these were early silent films which hadn’t been preserved anywhere else. In Dawson City: Frozen Time, filmmaker Bill Morrison pieces together footage from these films, as well as a range of other related archival material, to tell the story of the buried film in Dawson and also of the city itself.  

Morrison has frequently made use of archival footage in his films, notably in Decasia (2002), an experimental work exploring the unexpectedly compelling, and sometimes psychedelic, imagery that can result when old films decay. Decay also plays a central role in Dawson City, but this time the narrative aims at documentary accuracy.  

The deterioration of the lost film reels serves as Morrison’s entry point into several other interconnected stories, about the rapid rise and subsequent decay of the town of Dawson, and the devastating impact of the gold rush on the Yukon, and the early history of film itself, which is also marked by decay in the form of frequent fires in warehouses and theaters. Early nitrate films were highly flammable. Over 500 film reels ended up being tossed into a swimming pool in Dawson partly because it was too expensive to send them back, but also because it was too dangerous to store them. The fact that so many early 20th century films were destroyed this way, either by simply being thrown out or through accidental fire, makes the story of the Dawson City film find all the more improbable, and more important.   

We called Morrison in New York, where he lives and works, to talk about the process, and the challenges, of creating Dawson City: Frozen Time.  

NOTEBOOK: What was your process of figuring out this narrative that takes place in the film? How did you decide what to do with the footage? 

BILL MORRISON: I really didn’t know what I was going to find. I figured it would be a great topic just because no one had done it. It was kind of a storied collection in the archival world, but I felt like it never got made with a thorough treatment. I figured there was enough there that I could put together something about the collection, using the collection, but I didn’t know what the collection held. When I started looking there was a pretty comprehensive database already assembled on a Word document that allowed me to search for terms. The way I started was just to look for terms that were relevant to the film find, like “gold” or “film” or “mining,” and see what that turned up.

What I found rather quickly, almost the first day I started looking, was that there were untold treasures there. The Black Sox scandal was jaw-dropping to me, to any baseball fan, that that would have been preserved almost 40 years earlier and still nobody realized that it was there or watched it or brought it out into the open. It made me feel like this whole collection was well-preserved but not well-watched. Indeed, I found with the Ludlow Massacre footage that there was footage people didn’t realize was there, of very important events in labor history.

The real sweet spot of this collection was 1917, ‘18, ‘19, and ‘20; those were prime years for World War I and also for labor activism, and that became what the collection offered, but it also became a prism through which to see how the town had developed. This was a company mining town, too remote to have any of the history that you see in Ludlow. It became sort of a case study for what happens to a corporate autocracy, when it basically takes over and runs the town into the ground.

NOTEBOOK: How many films did you end up working with? Did you watch through all the films you worked with?  

MORRISON: I certainly watched everything I worked with; I didn’t watch everything in the collection. I think I looked at all the newsreels, or pretty close to all the newsreels. There are 533 titles. I knew I was trying to make a feature-length film, so I looked at a lot. We broke it down that there’s 533 reels, and there’s 372 titles, and I used 124 of those 372 titles. So I can’t tell you how many I looked at, but it basically breaks down to a 3:1 ratio.

It was very slow going at the beginning, when I’d go up to Ottawa, sort of working in an old world school, where I would have these films called up from the vault the day before, and they’d be in the editing room and I’d put them on a 35mm flatbed and scroll through them. You’re not allowed to go too fast because the films might tear if there’s a problem. So even though these are safety acetate—these are the restored viewing copies—the process was very slow, and the most I could hope to get through was 20 reels in a day. After three or four trips of doing that they had a 4K scanner installed and were eager to prioritize this project. Then it became a matter of shipping 12 terabyte drives up to Ottawa, and saying, “I want all these titles on there,” and a few weeks later they would come back. So then I could really scroll through for images that were pertinent. 

NOTEBOOK: How did you make the decision to include other material? Was that always the plan, or did you decide to expand at some point and not just work with the films themselves?  

MORRISON: I always understood the project as a history of film. I always thought it was too compelling a coincidence that in 1896 gold was discovered in what became Dawson City, and that was the same year you could make a case that modern cinema was invented—or cinema that had an audience, rather than just a private Nickelodeon viewer. I always understood that I was going to be teasing out a parallel between the commercial expansion into Dawson City and the cinematic invasion around the world including Dawson City, and those two things would be told simultaneously; and there were photographs of the Dawson City find and it would sort of culminate in those photographs from 1978.  

The other thing was, I knew that there was that mid-century, Cannes-winning, Oscar-nominated film City of Gold which is an important documentary film credited with influencing Ken Burns. There were these sort of temples along the way throughout the century.

Dawson was a very well-mediated town, it was a town that had always sort of been in love with its own image. There was that Edison title Poker in Dawson City [1899]; it had always projected an image of itself through film. There’s a whole series of films that take place in Dawson City, a sort of lost genre of the modern.  

I always understood this film as a portrait of the 20th century, and I was just really gratified to find how much material existed that could fill in those gaps. As it turned out, there’s something representing every decade there. And that usually involves a change in the medium in some way, either from glass plate photographs to nitrate films that are saved on paper; to the nitrate films that were saved on nitrate and come to us now through acetate; or the early amateur films that were on 16mm; or the beautiful mid-century acetate films shot through the 50s and the newsreel footage of the 60s; the photographs of the 70s and the sort of bad video of the 70s that documents the discovery. Each decade has a distinct look as dictated by its medium.  

NOTEBOOK: Something I found really interesting about the stories of the people who were in Dawson City was how many of them ended up becoming connected to film, or going to Hollywood. Why do you think that was?  

MORRISON: I think film was really important there. First of all, entertainment was important, and film was a reliable source of income that you didn’t have to keep paying a performer for. If you had a film you could keep charging admission. I think that wasn’t lost on Alex Pantages, Sid Grauman—they saw that in action, how this could expand and work all over the country. Also how important a distribution system was, or a series of theaters that would share the same material and therefore reduce costs. In some way it was a test tube for that way of thinking.

It also was a magnet for people who wanted to invent themselves. You can see Hollywood as an extension of that as well, another frontier, another gold rush, a place where you come to hit it big. The same crazy type of personality that would haul 2,000 pounds of goods over the side of a mountain to get to this gold rush town would be the same type that would be attracted to Hollywood, or wouldn’t be daunted by it.  

NOTEBOOK: I was reading something recently about how Blockbuster stores have just closed in Alaska; they were still operating in Alaska because a lot of people there don’t have good Internet access, so people were still renting DVDs. Do you feel film can have a special significance for people living in remote locations?

MORRISON: I think that’s still the case. I think why film became so popular in Dawson City is because you had this incredibly long winter and not a lot of reason to go out. At its height in the mid-teens you had four or five different cinemas showing films every day, or sometimes a program of four different films a week, or whatever. You could see something like 20 or 30 different films in a week. There are these anecdotes of a trapper or a miner or someone coming in from the woods and seeing everything they could possibly see and then going back out into the bush, having felt that they got sufficiently caught up, albeit caught up with whatever was current two or three years prior.  

I think that it is that sort of burrowing in for the winter that makes cinema attractive during those long winter months. Even today, if you were to go up to Dawson City this weekend, you’d see that it’s sort of like coming to a party at three or four in the morning. When September rolls around all the tourists leave, and things can freeze very quickly there. They might have snow by the end of the month. The transition into fall is very, very fast. You go from having days that are substantially longer than 12 hours to days that are substantially shorter than 12 hours in just a matter of weeks.  

I remember there was a waitress that served us—we were there Labor Day weekend, 2014—and she had already decided what she was going to binge watch with her friends. They had set up the day of the week, and the show that they were going to watch that was going to see them through the winter. This was the modern day Dawson film viewer. It maybe didn’t happen in the cinema, but you mapped up your winter according to what you could watch on what days.

NOTEBOOK: Do you think the story of Dawson City has any modern-day parallels?

MORRISON: Well, there are always going to be labor issues, and those are always associated with mines, the people who are actually digging the mines and the people who own them. The same can be said for the economic issues. People are going to continue to dig the earth and mine it for its resources regardless of what the ecological fallout is. I think you can see a parable there.

The film I made also talks about memory, it talks about what is remembered and what becomes history. I think it’s telling that in the newspaper account that talked about how the children are finding the film sticking up through the ice, it’s described as “long ago days.” I forget what the exact wording was of the newspaper article, but they said that in ancient times this was a repository for film. But it was actually only eight years earlier. And so you see how quickly people forget.  

I think after the films were found in Dawson City and they were restored, people quickly forgot that they’d ever been there, that they are now accessible and available to us. Finding a film is only half the story of realizing what it contains. You also have to go into the archives and watch it and contextualize it. I think that remains the case. There’s this romantic idea of this Indiana Jones explorer who comes across a cache of films, but there’s also quite a bit that we’ve already discovered that we simply haven’t watched.

NOTEBOOK: Have other people worked much with this archive?

MORRISON: What’s frequently happening with this archive is, for instance, Kino Lorber put out a collection this summer about women filmmakers; there are three or four women filmmakers from this collection and they became part of that. And you can look at the work of some early filmmakers as well.

But this collection is frustrating to archivists because it’s not complete. All the films have maybe just one or two reels. You can have a one-reeler, or the newsreels are complete, but anything that’s a serial or a feature is incomplete, and archivists are always looking for the cleanest possible image. That constant wave of white emulsion, or lack of emulsion, that’s coming from the side is always referred to as the Dawson Flutter—this very distinctive erasure of the image. Because of that, it’s been kind of left to lie. Nobody wants to make an edition that’s either incomplete or has some sort of damage to the image. To me, none of those things really mattered.

NOTEBOOK: A lot of those scenes are really beautiful and compelling, even though they’re damaged.

MORRISON: I made an entire film made up of scenes like that, called Decasia, from 2002. That flourish at the end of Dawson City is in a way an homage to this earlier work of mine, where the decay becomes a character—informs the image as much as obscures it.  

NOTEBOOK: It’s cool to see how the damage actually adds to the image, in a way, even though it obscures maybe the intended meaning.

MORRISON: Yeah, I mean with the water damage all that’s really happening is the emulsion has been removed, so to us it appears like a white patina on top of the image. Whereas with nitrate damage, especially if there’s been some sort of tinting or something, you can get those solarizing effects, and the actual image can morph and melt in different ways. It can be more psychedelic. But the water damage in this case gave an identity to the entire collection, and in a way it also equalizes the old narrative footage and the old newsreel footage. It can be shot seven, ten years apart, and has completely different intentions, and locations, but somehow they’re bonded by the fact that they were both buried in a swimming pool for 50 years.

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