Critics' Pick

Dawson City: Frozen Time (NR)

Documentary 120 min. September 15, 2017
By Michael Atkinson
Bill Morrison's method began as a poetic pivot -- his early films, including his breakout montage, Decasia (2002), and his Frankenstein adaptation, Spark of Being (2010) -- used the viscous chaos of actual nitrate dissolution to create a sense of lyrical menace and mourning. But with his past few features, Morrison has become more genuinely interested in history itself. So Dawson City: Frozen Time might be the Bill Morrison movie for viewers with little patience for Bill Morrison movies -- it could serve, maybe with a little celebrity narration, as a History Channel special.

He opens with a simple explanation of how nitrate was invented -- as an explosive -- and how film stock’s ridiculously fiery temperament has in its way shaped film history. Nitrate served as the art form’s suicidal imp, immolating one warehouse and theater after another and almost ensuring that film would never survive its own instability. The story moves to a massive cache of early 20th-century films uncovered in the 1970s in Dawson City, Alaska, which allows Morrison to launch into a leisurely portrait of the Yukon Gold Rush, Dawson City’s origins and growth (where, among a great many others, Fred Trump began his fortune, with a brothel), and so on.

The Dawson City footage — more than 370 films, some shot in the Yukon, some simply shipped in -- zip by in bullet-like blips, and a lot of it isn't even decayed. We see what Dawsonites saw, on the frozen edge of a frontier: local prospector dramas as well as imported travelogues, serials, melodramas, newsreels and nature studies. In all cases, the Dawson City prints are the only copies of these films to have survived. It's an orgy for film geeks and history jonesers.
Bill Morrison Kathy Jones-Gates, Michael Gates, Sam Kula, Bill O'Farrell, Bill Morrison Kino Lorber

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