Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison)

By Tara Judah

Introducing Decasia (2002) at Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bill Morrison talked about his requests for access for use of decaying nitrate film. Not all archives were forthcoming with the material. Perhaps it is the persistence of imperfection that breeds protective behaviour in archivists. But, what Morrison affected, once access was granted, is a glorious symphony of the persistence of history. The physical, indexical trace, though smudged, blurred, rotting and occasionally absent, never stops trying to prove itself. What was filmed may appear altered, but even a glimpse of a single frame is ontological proof in perpetuity.

Celebrating fragments and embracing the journey as well as the fact, Morrison makes the case for decay: every bit as important and beautiful as the thing it attacks. The quality of nitrate film, now, itself an historical artifact, must also be seen and even understood as art.

More urgently, it draws attention to the artifice of production in a new way, as the material itself is always achingly present; it refuses to adhere to the confines of the frame, affording it with a physically manifest, amorphous omnipotence; and, the fragility of the medium reminds us of the instability of human creation, and the finite nature of our species.

Beyond formal inquiry lies playful and lyrical entertainment: a man boxes a decaying blob, air shuttle shaped carriers on a carousel blast into frame out of a thrumming void, and young boys jump up and down on a moving splotch. There are moments, too, when the decay looks like something – a sort of phantom, haunting the image, insisting on the past.

The inescapable nature of history and our endless fascination with our own sordid stories further led Morrison to making the feature-length documentary, Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), which also screened at the festival this year. Working first with material from the Dawson City Film Find (1978), using some 124 of the 533 newly discovered reels, Morrison’s use of the footage is so expressive that it breathes new life into lost voices of the silent film era. The documentary tells a much grander and more complete narrative, too, about place, people and their complex history with film.

Flooding to Dawson in the hopes of striking it rich, prospectors turned the First Nation hunting ground into a city where gold and gambling were king. From its very early days, film played its part in both capturing the city’s rapid development and entertaining its new inhabitants. The disregard for film history – studios couldn’t be bothered to cover the costs of having the films sent back and, as the official end-of-the-line for exhibition, many prints were simply thrown in the river – mirrors the voracious, uncaring pace of capitalist enterprise and white settlement that also took place. Morrison reveals the uneasy history with a deft hand, letting primary evidence – static and moving – do the talking.

Dawson City is a multilayered story that really thinks about how time, history and artifact affects the memories of private and public lives. Morrison shows us how history refused to be silenced – the nitrate film that was buried constantly peeking out of the permafrost, begging to be (re)discovered. He lets us uncover, too, through the newly found silent film footage, how values and attitudes of the time played out in moving images, just as they do today. Carefully curated snippets of well-trodden visual tropes and storytelling devices that are ingrained in our cultural memory make the argument all the more compelling. He makes his own discoveries, also, through personal interest (namely baseball) and by the ever-changing significance of historical information – a Trump anecdote now plays its part in the film’s marketing, but only became relevant as the political climate changed over the duration of his working on the film.

So much more than just a lesson in Dawson City’s own history, and extending further still than the bounds of film history, Morrison’s approach to archive film offers us an experience of the past that is unwaveringly contemporary. There is, in my opinion, no greater way to consider how film history has relevance today than through the incredible archive works of art that Morrison has crafted.