Af­ter the Gold Rush

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Deb­o­rah Eisen­berg

Daw­son City: Frozen Time a doc­u­men­tary film writ­ten and di­rected by Bill Mor­ri­son

It’s es­ti­mated that all copies of about 75 per­cent of silent films have per­ished, tak­ing with them heaven knows how much mem­ory of an era. In 1978 a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of that mem­ory was re­cov­ered by chance when a Pen­te­costal min­is­ter with a back­hoe un­earthed the last known rem­nants of 372 silent films from the 1910s and 1920s, as he was ex­ca­vat­ing a lot be­hind Di­a­mond Tooth Ger­tie’s, a gam­bling hall in the Yukon’s Daw­son City. Just how those films came to turn up there is the ques­tion that ini­ti­ates Bill Mor­ri­son’s as­tound­ing Daw­son City: Frozen Time. Daw­son City: Frozen Time is nom­i­nally a doc­u­men­tary—it is a doc­u­men­tary—but de­scrib­ing it as a doc­u­men­tary is some­thing like de­scrib­ing Ulysses as a travel guide to Dublin. The film is trans­fix­ing, an ut­terly sin­gu­lar com­pound of the bizarre, the richly in­for­ma­tive, the thrilling, the hor­ri­fy­ing, the goofy, the tragic, and the flat-out gor­geous.

The struc­ture of the film is con­found­ingly com­plex; its con­tent spans vast, loop­ing, and twist­ing ter­ri­tory, and yet watch­ing it one soars along, as if ski­ing on a Möbius strip. It fits into no cat­e­gory I can think of, and is re­mark­able for, among other things, its plen­i­tude of ob­jec­tives and the sheer strange­ness of its ef­fect. When it ends, one feels that one has awak­ened from vivid and trans­port­ing dreams, ac­ti­vated, aloft, sharp­ened—one’s mind en­larged and freer. Mor­ri­son takes us from the dis­cov­ery of the buried film in 1978 back to the late nine­teenth cen­tury, and then moves for­ward through time, trac­ing the in­tri­cate con­cate­na­tion of im­prob­a­ble cir­cum­stances that brought the trove to the pe­cu­liar place where it was found. The in­ter­twined sto­ries in­volved are, on the one hand, the story of Daw­son City and, on the other hand, the story of film stock. Those who, like me, have never had a dis­cernible in­ter­est in ei­ther sub­ject stand to be re­minded that pretty much any­thing is fas­ci­nat­ing if we can see just how it fits into just what. The light Mor­ri­son sheds on his pos­si­bly un­promis­ing-sound­ing ma­te­rial re­veals a gleam­ing para­ble of hu­man folly.

Daw­son City: Frozen Time opens in the re­cent past, in color and with voices, and gives us the short-lived im­pres­sion that we’ll be watch­ing a con­ven­tional doc­u­men­tary. But most of it is black-and-white silent footage—pre­dom­i­nantly frag­ments of the ex­humed films in­ge­niously stitched to­gether to tell its own tale. Pho­to­graphs from the same pe­riod, sup­ple­ment­ing the film clips, seem to come to life as the cam­era pans over and zooms into them. Ti­tles pro­vide in­for­ma­tion when nec­es­sary. The voice­less un­fold­ing of his­tory in front of our eyes, un­medi­ated by spo­ken commentary, feels breath­lessly in­ti­mate, and the mes­mer­iz­ing, oth­er­worldly score and sound de­sign, by Alex Somers, in­ten­si­fies the sen­sa­tion that one is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing, rather than watch­ing, a vi­sion or rev­e­la­tion em­a­nat­ing from in­side one’s own head. Of course there is no such thing as a pris­tine story—ev­ery story is tan­gled up with other sto­ries—but few are en­tan­gled with each other at many junc­tures. And how­ever un­likely any in­ter­sec­tions be­tween them would seem, the his­tory of film, the modern world’s most glam­orous medium, and the his­tory of Daw­son City, a rough-and-tum­ble town in the wilds of north­west Canada, im­pinge upon each other re­peat­edly over the course of a cen­tury.

As it hap­pens, the in­ven­tion of mo­tion pic­ture film and the found­ing of Daw­son City were roughly con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous. In 1889 East­man Ko­dak fig­ured out how to turn cel­lu­lose ni­trate, an ex­plo­sive used in mu­ni­tions, into a flex­i­ble plas­tic that could be coated with a light-sen­si­tive emul­sion. In 1896

prospec­tors es­tab­lished Daw­son City in the area where the Yukon and the Klondike rivers meet, which also hap­pened to have been for mil­len­nia the sea­sonal hunt­ing and fish­ing ground, called Tr’ochëk, of the indige­nous Hän-speak­ing peo­ple. Con­se­quently the indige­nous vil­lage was re­lo­cated a few kilo­me­ters down­river.

Of the first 100,000 prospec­tors who swarmed over the treach­er­ous Chilkoot Pass to­ward gold, 70,000 died or turned back. Those who made it over the pass built boats to sail down the Yukon, and by 1897, five tons of gold had been sent out of Daw­son City. The ex­tremes to which hu­mans will go in the pur­suit of wealth are de­picted in har­row­ing im­ages of the seem­ingly end­less pro­ces­sion of men stag­ger­ing through the snow up the pass, each man haul­ing his req­ui­site two thousand pounds of gear and sup­plies; of men bom­barded by an avalanche; of men sprawled, dy­ing, in the snow; of steam­ers packed with men and horses.

And what was a prospec­tor to do af­ter sun­down? Alert en­trepreneurs were quick to devise en­ter­tain­ments to siphon off prof­its. We see the brothel run by Fred­er­ick Trump—the foun­da­tion of the Trump fam­ily for­tune—in the town of White­horse en route to Daw­son, mobs of men in Daw­son’s sa­loons and gam­bling halls, a line of pros­ti­tutes in an al­ley, gold dust be­ing weighed out for drinks . . . Many of these im­ages from the ear­li­est days of Daw­son City are heart­stop­ping stills by the photographer Eric Hegg, hundreds of which were pre­served and dis­cov­ered through the same sort of hair’s-breadth coin­ci­dences that sal­vaged the buried films. The Gold Rush was abun­dantly doc­u­mented, and with its florid ex­hi­bi­tions of greed, in­ge­nu­ity, courage, vi­o­lence, pas­sion, am­bi­tion, ex­ploita­tion, and the will to sur­vive against vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble odds, it pro­vided an ir­re­sistible set­ting for many early Hol­ly­wood movies.

The doc­u­men­tary and the fic­tional ma­te­ri­als re­ver­ber­ate un­can­nily to­gether,

cre­at­ing a sort of deliri­ous ex­tra di­men­sion. It’s eerie to glimpse Hol­ly­wood’s de­pic­tions of the Gold Rush world of white-knuck­led card games, back­woods melo­drama, dis­rep­utable high life, bar brawls, and so on, when we have al­ready seen some­thing of the ac­tu­al­ity—or to watch Char­lie Chap­lin floun­der­ing up his Cal­i­for­nia-filmed fac­sim­ile of the Chilkoot Pass. If any­thing, the shock quo­tient of the doc­u­men­tary footage out­strips Hol­ly­wood’s lurid in­ven­tions, but the lurid in­ven­tions are not only riv­et­ing in them­selves, they pro­vide an un­set­tling coun­ter­point to the doc­u­men­tary footage—a fun­house­mir­ror view that’s no less con­vinc­ing than what it re­flects; it seems as though the fever­ish re­al­ity is hav­ing a con­so­la­tory hal­lu­ci­na­tion of it­self.

A down­right weird ros­ter of fa­mil­iar per­son­al­i­ties drifted through Daw­son City in un­ex­pected roles, as in a dream—Sid Grau­man (later of Grau­man’s Chi­nese Theatre) showed up in the ca­pac­ity of news­boy, the writer Robert Ser­vice as a bank clerk. The town swelled and shrank dra­mat­i­cally, de­pend­ing on its dra­mat­i­cally fluc­tu­at­ing ex­pec­ta­tions. And there were fires, which de­stroyed Daw­son City’s busi­ness dis­trict ev­ery year for its first nine years and con­tin­ued to flare up pe­ri­od­i­cally. News of a gold strike in Nome, Alaska, in 1899 re­duced the pop­u­la­tion of Daw­son to one quar­ter of the size it had been two years ear­lier when it was set­tled, but al­most im­me­di­ately am­ple new veins were struck around Daw­son. Those who had stayed set­tled in with con­fi­dence and sent for their fam­i­lies. In 1900 a court­house, a li­brary, and a whole­some recre­ation cen­ter were built. In 1901 the al­most com­i­cally san­i­tized town closed its gam­bling halls and ban­ished pros­ti­tu­tion to Klondike City, on the re­cent site of the Hän camp, Tr’ochëk, which in any case had been ru­ined by min­ing as a hunt­ing and fish­ing ground.

Soon, min­ing was con­trolled by dredg­ing com­pa­nies, and then by one dredg­ing com­pany, and min­ers be­came more or less re­dun­dant. By 1910, the pop­u­la­tion of Daw­son had been re­duced again, this time by two thirds, but its recre­ational and cul­tural re­sources were vastly am­pli­fied by Hol­ly­wood, where a few prints were be­ing made of ev­ery new movie. Each print would make its way slowly from town to town along a des­ig­nated dis­tri­bu­tion route, one of which ter­mi­nated, two or three years down the line, at Daw­son (now a town of less than five thousand peo­ple). By 1911, the town had three movie the­aters, where hundreds of films were screened over the course of a year.

At a cer­tain point in his story, Mor­ri­son melds us with Daw­son’s movie the­ater au­di­ences, and to­gether we look out­ward at the wide world be­yond the Klondike. In clips from silent news­reels and fea­ture films we get to see the tur­bu­lent early decades of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury hur­tle by. Weapons are man­u­fac­tured and trans­ported for use in World War I; at the be­hest of mine owner John D. Rock­e­feller Jr., the Colorado Na­tional Guard opens fire on strik­ing min­ers, killing two dozen men, women, and chil­dren; ele­phant races are con­ducted in In­dia; the Silent Pa­rade, 8,000 to 15,000 strong, or­ga­nized by, among others, W. E. B. Dubois, marches along Fifth Av­enue to protest vi­o­lence against African-Amer­i­cans; ac­tors in Hol­ly­wood smooch, cheat, lis­ten be­hind doors, and swoon; Alexan­der Berk­mann ad­dresses the huge mem­ber­ship of the In­dus­trial Work­ers of the World.

We wit­ness ev­i­dence—vis­i­ble for the first time in the ex­ca­vated films—of the 1919 World Se­ries–fix­ing scan­dal. And we see in ac­tion the dis­tin­guished, glit­tery-eyed anti-la­bor zealot Judge Ke­ne­saw Moun­tain Lan­dis, who was cred­ited with clean­ing up base­ball af­ter the scan­dal as well as with so­lid­i­fy­ing racism in the game, and who ex­u­ber­antly im­pris­oned or de­ported la­bor lead­ers, war re­sisters, and so­cial­ists. The films we are glimps­ing were recorded on cel­lu­lose ni­trate—the sib­ling of the mil­i­tary ex­plo­sive—but we now watch them on a newer sort of film, an ac­etate stock that is not likely to burst into flames and burn down the the­ater where we are sit­ting.* Not only can ni­trate film be set alight by a pro­jec­tor, it is li­able to com­bust spon­ta­neously and

*Daw­son City: Frozen Time is best seen on a large screen, ob­vi­ously, with a good sound sys­tem. But if you’re in no mood to wait un­til it’s shown on one (for ex­am­ple at the Mu­seum of Modern Art, which owns a stun­ning print), your lap­top will do.

rage on vi­o­lently even if en­tirely sub­merged in wa­ter. It was prized for its lu­mi­nos­ity and beau­ti­ful blacks—and it was sig­nif­i­cantly cheaper than the form of safety film that was de­vel­oped just around the time movies started to ar­rive in Daw­son City. It wasn’t un­til about 1950—af­ter nu­mer­ous film fires had de­stroyed vast amounts of prop­erty and stored films and had cost many lives—that safety film was widely used.

As it was dif­fi­cult to trans­port any­thing to and from the Yukon (at one time Daw­son City’s garbage was left on the ice-cov­ered river to float it­self out of town in the spring thaw), and as dis­trib­u­tors weren’t ea­ger to pay to ship back copies of films that were two or three years out of date by the time they showed in Daw­son City, the prob­lem arose of what to do with the lethally volatile su­per­an­nu­ated amuse­ments. In 1931 the in­tro­duc­tion of talkies to Daw­son City was the coup de grâce for Daw­son’s stored silent films. Quan­ti­ties were dumped into the Yukon, others were set ablaze, and the rest were dealt with in the way that Mor­ri­son re­veals over the course of Daw­son City: Frozen Time. No mat­ter how of­ten it hap­pens, it’s al­ways star­tling to be re­minded how poorly thought out and hap­haz­ardly ex­e­cuted are so many things crit­i­cal to our well-be­ing. But the out­landish in­ven­tive­ness of his­tory is flab­ber­gast­ing, and it’s pure joy to watch the way Mor­ri­son—build­ing to­ward a ri­otous crescendo of in­ter­cut fea­ture and doc­u­men­tary clips—pro­ceeds to dis­close the ca­sual and hare­brained ex­pe­di­ents that just hap­pened to re­sult in the preser­va­tion of these pre­cious films. Mor­ri­son is an artist be­fore a doc­u­men­tar­ian, and those who are fa­mil­iar with his work—or even only with his most widely seen film, De­ca­sia (2002)—will be aware of his ap­petite for dam­aged ni­trate film, its visual fe­cun­dity and druggy nar­ra­tive po­ten­tial, and the ravishing beauty he can elicit from it. In De­ca­sia he ex­ploits its ca­pac­i­ties to cre­ate—or, as it seems, un­leash—sto­ries strug­gling to emerge from the im­age, to ex­pand and cri­tique the in­tended story; com­pet­ing nar­ra­tives in­sep­a­ra­bly joined; phan­tom, muf­fled, ur­gent commentary.

The Daw­son City films were bet­ter pre­served than the films Mor­ri­son used in De­ca­sia. The sort of dam­age they sus­tained does not, for the most part, share the others’ buck­ling, erupt­ing, pro­tean qual­ity. None­the­less, dam­aged film of any sort is bound to honor the un­seen—what is ob­scured, what has been soiled, what is dy­ing, what lives be­yond the con­fines of our senses. Our ob­structed view of what is miss­ing sug­gests a coded story, cryp­tic but vi­tal.

The eter­nal, macabre ro­mance be­tween life and death, gen­er­a­tion and dev­as­ta­tion, the abid­ing and the evanes­cent, is ev­ery­where in Daw­son City: Frozen Time. One of the most shat­ter­ing things I’ve ever seen on film is the sus­tained footage of the ex­hausted earth, tor­tured and de­pleted by min­ing. And one of the most poignant is the por­trait of the re­gion and its in­hab­i­tants—in­clud­ing Chief Isaac of the Hän—in later years re­duced vir­tu­ally to theme-park rep­re­sen­ta­tions of them­selves. At the heart of Daw­son City: Frozen Time are, of course, the res­ur­rected frag­ments of an im­mo­lated world, the be­witch­ing ghosts once again man­i­fest­ing their pas­sion­ate fan­tasies. The film’s essence is echo, para­dox, al­lu­sion—the lust for gold that drove hundreds of thou­sands to­ward the top of the world only to per­ish; film, the his­tory-al­ter­ing sub­stance that records, in­forms, pre­serves, gives joy, con­sumes it­self, and kills; Daw­son City, the town that sprang up on frozen land, flour­ish­ing by im­pov­er­ish­ing an­other pop­u­la­tion; the cycli­cal catas­tro­phes from which it con­tin­ued to re­build it­self. Not only are both ni­trate film and Daw­son City ex­pres­sions of hu­man­ity’s ir­re­press­ible cre­ativ­ity, they are also both ex­pres­sions of hu­man­ity’s ir­re­press­ible de­struc­tive­ness.

It’s chas­ten­ing to wit­ness the pli­ant ma­te­rial of his­tory as it’s be­ing made and at the same time what that his­tory has come to mean and what it has brought into be­ing. That the Daw­son City archive made its way to us through the frozen earth re­minds us how in­es­timably much van­ishes. What en­dures casts an ephemeral shadow—that in­sis­tent, spec­tral com­men­ta­tor, the fu­ture, which asks us to con­sider what sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions will see in sur­viv­ing records of our own life that is in­vis­i­ble to us now.

Louise Lovely in The So­cial Buc­ca­neerDaw­son City: Frozen Time (1916), from Bill Mor­ri­son’s

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.