It’s a ghost story like you’ve never seen.
The making-of story for “Dawson City: Frozen Time” isn’t typical behind-the-scenes chatter. The discovery of 500 silent-era nitrate film reels buried behind a gambling hall is actually what forms the meat of this riveting, thoughtful and very emotional documentary. Though documentary may be too limiting a term.
Co-produced by the Museum of Modern Art, director Bill Morrison weaves a symphonic history of the “last stop” up the Yukon in Canada, in a mostly silent, elegiac reverie. It is a full immersion into the past, using gorgeous still images and, most importantly, selected moments from forgotten movies that implausibly spent decades preserved in the icy ground.
Using the actual “film find” to tell Dawson City’s story, from a First Nations trading post to the heart of the Gold Rush to its eventual economic decline, is, in itself, a neat trick. But Morrison’s editing style, aided by Sigur Rós associate Alex Somers’ haunting score, transports us past typical photo captions and Wikipedia entries to evoke some sort of eerie, hazy truth.
It’s also a remarkable education about silent film, 70% of which, as “Dawson City: Frozen Time” explains, has been lost forever. The footage we see here, some of which is deteriorated into an abstract expressionist blur, only exists because Dawson City was the distributors’ final destination. Most were burned or dumped in the river to make room for new shipments; you could say a clerical error is the true parent of this film.
While the story progresses chronologically (and some boldfaced names like Jack London, Sid Grauman and the New York Rangers’ “Tex” Rickard make appearances) this is about as far from a typical Ken Burns-style doc as you can get. The music and editing occasionally whip themselves up into a rush of explosive emotion, perhaps echoing the highly flammable nitrate stock the story is all about.