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Non-Review Review: Dawson City – Frozen Time

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

In 1978, the city of Dawson was demolishing an old ice rink to make room for a new recreational centre. During the demolition, the construction crews stumbled on something remarkable. Reels and canisters of films buried in the old swimming book, sealed away and forgotten about. This was a treasure trove for cinema historians, the unearthing of a collection that included films that had been presumed lost to history. It represented a tangible and literal connection to the rich history of cinema and – through that – to the history of American popular culture.

Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time is a documentary looking at this archeological discovery, but it is also so much more. Using footage taken from the recovered films, and from other contemporaneous materials, Morrison takes the audience on a trip through the cultural history of the eponymous settlement, from its origins at the end of the nineteenth century through to the unearthing of these nitrate film reels in the late seventies. The result is a beautiful and compelling exhumation of something much more than those invaluable and long-considered lost silent films.

Morrison weaves a fascinating and compelling narrative that seems to tie all of this together into a convincing and expansive social history. The result is a documentary with startling ambition and scope, in some ways reflecting the approach taken by those earliest of settlers panning for gold in the Yukon territory. Dawson City follows both the social evolution of the settlement and occasionally digresses to follow some of its most important inhabitants. Some of these digressions introduce players who will return to the narrative later in the film, both others suggest a broader social context for the film.

Dawson City is occasionally just a little bit too unfocused for its own good, casting its net just a little bit too wide to bring everything back together for an otherwise satisfying finale. Nevertheless, Dawson City is a powerful ode to a community and to cinematic history, one with big ideas and provocative insights.

Dawson City makes a convincing argument that the history of American popular culture is really just the history of American capitalism. The film hits on a number of themes across its runtime, in particular the idea of how various lives overlap and intersect in the most unexpected ways – how small details add up to a bigger picture. However, the film returns time and time again to the notion of capitalism as a driving and defining force of American identity, the factor that shapes and moulds the culture in manners both subtle and explicit.

This is most obvious in the early history of the Yukon settlements, presented using both archival documentary footage and material from The Gold Rush. The city was founded on those pioneers who pushed further north and further west than those who had already chased manifest destiny to California. The journey was driven by the belief that the continent still had financial reward to offer those brave enough and bold enough to risk their lives in pursuit of gold. The photographs are striking and humbling.

This pursuit of profit and capital runs through Dawson City, reflected in details large and small. The movie offers a tiny aside on the fact that the modern President of the United States can trace his fortune back to a frontier brothel. The documentary’s history of cinema pays particular attention to the flammable nitrate film stock, which caused countless deaths and was only kept in use because it was cheaper than the flame-retardant alternative. There are even tangents on the attempts by miners to unionise or on betting in major league baseball that return to the theme again and again.

Indeed, Dawson City repeatedly emphasises that the mechanics of capitalism not only explain the development and evolution of the local community, but also how these timeless artifacts came to be buried beneath an old ice hockey rink in the middle of nowhere. The films were too expensive to preserve, and too financially important to release. By coincidence, the Yukon territories were the end of the distribution chain. When these film elements were also too expensive to ship back to Los Angeles to destroy, they were simply buried to be discovered by future generations.

There is a very confident flow to Dawson City, with many of the narratives digressions and asides neatly bookending and overlapping. The first half of the documentary establishes a number of intriguing historical characters in a manner that seems to sketch the finer detail of a time and place, but the second half begins the process of dovetailing those elements with considerable grace and skill. Indeed, Dawson City even finds the time to tell a short love story about a couple who find themselves drawn together by the excavation, suggesting the strange nexus of connections forged by this particular tale.

At the same time, there are points at which Dawson City does seem a little bit unfocused, when its digressions and its discursions occasionally escape its otherwise carefully calibrated grasp. There is a late-film discussion of an infamous baseball incident that is quite compelling on its own terms, but which doesn’t really seem to justify the space that it takes up. Then again, there is something appealing even in this bloat. Dawson City suggests so many rich and vibrant stories unfolding at its margins that it is hard to blame the documentary for indulging one or two of them.

Dawson City is a loving ode to cinema, and a powerful excavation of cultural history.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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