Barry Levitt was a participant on this year's inaugural Film Critics Day workshop at the Cinema Rediscovered film festival in Bristol and Clevedon in the U.K. Cinema Rediscovered is a celebration of the finest new digital restorations, contemporary classics and film print rarities from across the globe. 15 early career and aspiring film critics took part in a full day workshop looking at the state of things for film criticism in the U.K. and beyond. They each produced a written or visual piece of criticism around the films in the program. Further examples of their work, as well as information about the program, can be found on the Cinema Rediscovered Blog.
At the bottom of a derelict swimming pool in Dawson City, deep in the Yukon territory of north-west Canada, lay one of the greatest discoveries in film history, waiting to be found. For nearly fifty years some 500 films lay dormant under the permafrost. In 1978, the films were discovered, with the brutal Yukon winters providing miraculous protection for the nitrate film reels, filled with stories forgotten, thought to be lost forever.
It is this remarkable discovery that informs Bill Morrison’s latest feature, Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016). Morrison is no stranger to using archive footage to tell his stories, as the critically acclaimed Decasia (2002) attests. For Dawson City, Morrison takes this concept to a new level, using the very footage found under the permafrost to illustrate the story of its discovery. Morrison uses a variety of archival materials including newspaper clippings and photographic stills to drive the narrative forwards but, the silent film clips are the film’s raison d'être. For Morrison, it is the very role of discovery that informs the use of his archive footage. It feels as if the footage commands the narrative, guiding the story into strange, unbelievable (yet entirely factual) and fascinating places.
Archival footage, positioned as an opportunity for new discoveries, is increasingly evident in the film’s decision to explore multiple tangents; the film tells a much larger story than the discovery of the lost film reels. It uses the footage to springboard into discussion around Dawson City’s history before, during and after the gold rush, as well as of the filmmaking process, even stretching its narrative to include the romantic side-plot of two passionate individuals who discovered the footage. Dawson City is a deliciously complex film—masterfully weaving archival footage into a new narrative to bring a tremendous story to light.
In addition to using the archive footage to rediscover histories, Morrison’s employment of the footage also stems from his own personal memories. This can be attributed to the film’s inclusion of footage of the baseball World Series of 1919, which was also discovered in Dawson City. Morrison, as revealed in an interview with Filmmaker magazine, made the White Sox one of his first searches when accessing the archives. As a baseball fan growing up in Chicago, Morrison uses the footage to explore his own personal interests, and a TV-interview with Morrison regarding the World Series footage opens the film. While the footage does tie-in with overarching themes the film presents, there is no tangible relationship to the story of Dawson City, therefore highlighting Morrison’s use of archival footage to engage his own personal memories and interests.
The role of discovery in Dawson City is densely layered, as evidenced by a subplot within the narrative. It involves the remarkable story of photographer Eric Heggs, who travelled to the Yukon at the height of the gold rush. Heggs used 200 glass-plate negatives to insulate his photography studio. The 19th century photographs remained for decades before their discovery in the 1950s. What is fascinating here is that Morrison uses Heggs’ photographs as archival material in the film’s narrative, where the images illustrate the very narrative they are the subject of. The use of Heggs’ images is just one of the many delightful surprises found within the exhaustive story of Dawson City.
The film explores several personal narratives to illustrate the illustrious history of the small town. The cast of characters is varied; silent film director William Desmond Taylor, Sid Graumann (builder of the famed Graumann’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles), and President Donald Trump’s grandfather, Frederick, all spent time in Dawson City during the gold rush. These personalities, explored through found footage, further emphasise Morrison’s ability to create personal histories through archival images.
The film is effectively silent (apart from a few modern clips with synchronized sound) and the film has no audible narration. Instead, the narrative is relayed through the images themselves, with superimposed passages of text, akin to title cards of the silent era. In a sense, Morrison recreates the sensory experience of watching a silent film, placing viewers into the very era that the film evokes. For the unfamiliar with silent film, Dawson City may be a daunting experience, but the decision to have no audible narration is effective, as it subconsciously brings the viewer deeper into the film’s universe, highlighting a Dawson City that plays itself.
While Dawson City: Frozen Time is a sprawling epic that looks at a wide range of personalities, Mark Kidel’s latest documentary focuses on one Archibald Leach, better known as actor Cary Grant. While on the surface, Dawson City and Kidel’s Becoming Cary Grant (2017) appear to have little in common, both films use archival footage with discerning affect: to offer new discoveries and evoke personal histories.
Kidel uses a wide range of materials to tell Cary Grant’s story, ranging from his unpublished autobiography, recreations, clips from his filmography, talking heads of experts on Grant’s life, as well as personal accounts of friends and family. What gives the film a unique flavor is the use of film shot by Grant himself, filmed in the late 30s and early 40s. The footage, shot in 16mm color, has an almost psychedelic, washed-out effect that lends the film a dreamlike quality. Kidel expertly matches Grant’s own footage with voice-over narration of his therapy treatments, in which he took LSD upwards of 100 times. It is an evocative decision, and you can easily imagine a different documentarian providing straightforward commentary over the images Grant filmed. Instead, Kidel uses the footage as an avenue to analyze Grant’s psyche. As Kidel explains:
[T]he people need not be identified, but used to evoke his inner world and the images thrown up by his memory and his unconscious…no-one points a camera—especially when it is used as a kind of note taking or journal-making exercise – without revealing unconscious thoughts and desires.
The medium of film is a perfect conduit for memories, with any one image evoking an endless array of relations to a viewer’s own world. In this sense, Becoming Cary Grant is an introspective experience. Instead of following convention, using a person’s story to look outward and explore wider themes, the film looks deeper into Cary Grant’s personal world, using his own words (narrated by Jonathan Pryce) and images.
Key reoccurring motifs from the archive footage play a crucial role in understanding Cary Grant: first, there are the droves of women he filmed, often in bathing suits, swimming or relaxing on beaches—there is something about these women, as they look at the camera (and therefore, at Grant himself), they are clearly enamored, and enjoy being in his company – then there are the repeated images of boats. As Kidel explains, it were “as if the boats made him dream of escaping Bristol as a child, remained…a symbol of the possibility of reinventing oneself on distant shores.” Indeed, this connects with another main component of the film, the enigmatic life of Grant.
Moving to America at a young age through vaudeville theatre, Grant wound up in Hollywood, and eventually became an American citizen. The recurring images of boats, coming and leaving, destination unknown, speak highly to Grant’s endless sense of searching for happiness—something which LSD therapy helped him come to terms with. There is a sense, throughout the film, that Grant is always performing, and it is the archival footage used that gives us access to the “real” Cary Grant, more than any one interview could ever hope to achieve.
The film further devotes itself to Grant’s Hollywood persona as a suave, sophisticated gentleman. Though audiences can see the persona through Grant’s film roles and in interviews with those who knew him, there is a far more palpable sense of Grant’s personality in his home videos. Gone is the glitz and glamour of the cinema, stripped bare, without a filter. Through the reactions of the women he filmed and the ebb and flow of the vast expanses of water separating Hollywood (Grant) from Bristol (Leach), Kidel offers remarkable insight into the man Grant really was.
For Dawson City, Morrison only looked at around 124 of the 500-plus reels of film, and Kidel used considerably less than the more than three hours of material he pored over from Grant’s personal archive. Thus, archive footage is used as a tremendous tool in the quest to uncover the secrets of the past and to reveal personal histories, one thought lost. Through Morrison and Kidel, the histories of a small town and a Hollywood megastar can be experienced in unimaginable ways. However, with hours of footage left on the cutting-room floor, archive footage still maintains its elusive nature—who knows just how many stories still wait to be discovered?