Fas­ci­nat­ing look at trove of old films


It’s been called King Tut’s Tomb of silent cinema, a cel­lu­loid find at one of the world’s far cor­ners that daz­zled the film uni­verse, but to ac­com­plished, am­bi­tious moviemaker Bill Mor­ri­son, it was some­thing more: the chance to tell the story of a lifetime, to spin a won­drous, al­most in­de­scrib­able tale, a com­plete as­ton­ish­ment from be­gin­ning to end.

The thrilling doc­u­men­tary “Dawson City: Frozen Time” is in­de­scrib­able not be­cause it’s am­bigu­ous (it’s to­tally straight­for­ward) but

be­cause it does so many things so beau­ti­fully it is hard to know where to be­gin.

An aes­thetic knock­out that’s crammed with wild tales, amaz­ing facts and un­con­ven­tional per­son­al­i­ties, a doc­u­men­tary that’s also a de­tec­tive story, a his­tory of a par­tic­u­lar place that turns into an ex­am­i­na­tion of an art form as well as a gloss on the po­lit­i­cal his­tory of the 20th cen­tury, “Dawson City” be­gins and ends in its name­sake tiny gold rush town just south of the Arc­tic Cir­cle in Canada’s un­for­giv­ing Yukon Ter­ri­tory.

It all started in the sum­mer of 1978, when a back­hoe op­er­a­tor ex­ca­vat­ing for a new build­ing be­hind Di­a­mond Tooth Ger­tie’s casino in Dawson City came across reels and reels of old ni­trate film dat­ing from the teens and 1920s that had been pre­served in the far north’s per­mafrost for half a cen­tury.

Once the dust had cleared and the ar­chiv­ists had done their work, 533 reels were saved — half a mil­lion feet of film — the last sur­viv­ing rem­nants of an as­ton­ish­ing 372 ti­tles, all of which had been thought lost for­ever.

These in­cluded work by ma­jor stars such as Lionel Barrymore, Lon Chaney and Dou­glas Fair­banks and long-for­got­ten fea­tures with evoca­tive ti­tles like “A Sage­brush Ham­let” and “The Blud­geon.”

There were se­ri­als, shorts and a great deal of vivid news­reel footage, in­clud­ing an un­dreamed-of pre­vi­ously un­seen cin­e­matic record of one of the most con­tro­ver­sial plays in 1919’s in­fa­mous “Black Sox” World Se­ries scan­dal.

Writer-di­rec­tor-editor Mor­ri­son turned out to be the ideal per­son to ex­plore all of this. He con­veys with mag­nif­i­cent ob­ses­sive­ness the dra­matic de­tails of how and why all that film be­came buried in the per­mafrost in the first place, what tran­spired when it was found, and the un­ex­pect­edly com­pelling his­tory of Dawson City in par­tic­u­lar and the 1897

Klondike gold rush in gen­eral.

It’s a his­tory that en­com­passes nu­mer­ous larg­erthan-life in­di­vid­u­als who in­ter­act in mul­ti­ple ways and reap­pear when you least ex­pect them. These in­clude cel­e­brated dancer Klondike Kate Rock­well, Pres­i­dent Trump’s grand­fa­ther Fred, and future the­atri­cal im­pre­sar­ios and key Los An­ge­les fig­ures Sid Grau­man and Alexan­der Pan­tages.

Mor­ri­son’s best-known pre­vi­ous fea­ture, 2002’s “De­ca­sia” (the most re­cent film named to the Li­brary of Con­gress’ pres­ti­gious Na­tional Film Reg­istry), dealt with the in­nate beauty of de­cay­ing and de­com­pos­ing ni­trate footage.

Be­cause of his long­stand­ing and par­tic­u­lar in­ter­ests, Mor­ri­son had a deep affin­ity for the strange and star­tling beauty of the Dawson City found footage (much of which ended up with dis­tinc­tive wa­ter dam­age mark­ings), us­ing it sev­eral dif­fer­ent ways but al­ways to its best ad­van­tage.

An­other char­ac­ter­is­tic of Mor­ri­son’s work is its con­nec­tion with con­tem­po­rary mu­sic.

For “Dawson City,” well aware that silent films were never truly silent but, rather, de­pended on mu­si­cal ac­com­pa­ni­ment, he col­lab­o­rated with Alex Somers, a com­poser and fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor with the Ice­landic group Sigur Rós. Somers pro­duced an ex­cep­tional score, brood­ing and won­der­fully omi­nous, that el­e­vates and en­larges the film’s ex­ten­sive silent im­agery.

Though “Dawson City” con­veys an al­most un­par­al­leled amount of in­for­ma­tion to view­ers, it stays away from con­ven­tional voiceover. Rather, it makes ex­ten­sive use of crisp white type on the screen to tell us ev­ery­thing we need to know.

Of­ten that type is shown over the nu­mer­ous evoca­tive black and white pe­riod still pho­to­graphs that Mor­ri­son has used to fur­ther deepen the story. Many of the most iconic images were taken by Eric Hegg, and the wild tale of how many of Hegg’s frag­ile glass plate nega­tives man­aged to sur­vive is one of the many told here.

Though it’s so sub­tly in­ter­wo­ven you might not im­me­di­ately no­tice it, one of “Dawson City’s” nar­ra­tive threads is a gloss on the na­ture of cap­i­tal­ism, grounded in gold min­ing in­for­ma­tion and in­clud­ing fas­ci­nat­ing news­reel footage of a 1917 New York march protest­ing anti-black vi­o­lence and a 1929 an­ar­chist bomb­ing of the J.P. Mor­gan bank that killed 38.

As com­pelling vis­ually as it is dra­mat­i­cally, “Dawson City’s” splen­did images are its strength. Mor­ri­son has an ex­cep­tional eye for what is strik­ing, and he uses ex­cerpts from the re­cov­ered footage in un­ex­pected yet com­ple­men­tary ways.

Ini­tially, clips are used as a witty way to il­lus­trate story points: If the type on screen men­tions a Dawson City fire (there were many), we see a va­ri­ety of in­ferno footage. But Mor­ri­son so loves this footage he can’t stop there, fa­vor­ing us with mon­tages of shots edited to­gether just for the pure joy of ex­pres­sive im­agery.

It’s the rare film where you feel you don’t want to so much as blink out of fear you’ll miss some­thing ex­cep­tional on the screen, but “Dawson City: Frozen Time” fits that de­scrip­tion. If you love film, if you’re in­tox­i­cated by the way movies com­bine im­age and emo­tion, be pre­pared to swoon.

ken­neth.tu­ran @la­times.com Twit­ter: @Ken­nethTu­ran

‘Dawson City: Frozen Time’

Kino Lor­ber

FILM re­cov­ered from the Yukon per­mafrost in the 1970s fea­tures ac­tress-pro­ducer-di­rec­tor Louise Lovely.

Kino Lor­ber

A SCENE from 1916’s “The Half Breed,” which was one of hun­dreds of ti­tles un­earthed from Canada’s Yukon Ter­ri­tory in the 1970s, is shown in “Dawson City.”

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