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Unearthed Films in 'Dawson City: Frozen Time' Are Mesmerizing

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Kino Lorber
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My mother, who was born in 1910 and lived to almost 96, used to say that watching older movies was like seeing ghosts. She’d encountered Lillian Gish, the Marx Brothers, the Barrymores, Frederic March and others live onstage, and even on the street. Long after their deaths their images on screen had an eerie quality for her. Movies have that ghostly sense. They document the existence, the look and motion of real people, so to see them years later, preserved in a way on screen, becomes like vivid and sometimes disturbing memory.

Dawson City: Frozen Time needs explanation and a story. Because Dawson City in the Yukon was at the end of a film distribution line in the early 20th century, theater operators were told to destroy the prints after they showed them. But that didn’t always happen. Many prints were just dumped into an abandoned swimming pool in town, which was eventually covered over for a hockey rink. In 1978, those not-quite-destroyed cans of film were uncovered during a construction project. There were many unique titles in the cache – films unknown for decades. And director Bill Morrison incorporates images from those films in Dawson City Frozen Time.

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Credit Kino Lorber
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Kino Lorber

Dawson City: Frozen Time is a history or a biography of one of the legendary gold rush towns. It’s where the poet Robert Service wrote such rhyming stories as “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” Morrison starts his film with images of real life in Dawson City, remarkable photos by a Dawson City photographer of the gold rush years named Eric Hegg. But to those documentary photos, Morrison adds clips from the fictional films excavated from the swimming pool as well as documentary film footage shot over a span of many years. And finally, these disparate and telling images are held together by a spoken history of the town.

Even the best memory is part fiction, so Hegg’s photographs and the footage from the fictional films complement each other. There’s a striking connection both to the actual gold rush, as Hegg captured it, and to Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 film The Gold Rush, which begins with a direct imitation of Hegg’s pictures of a long line of prospectors struggling up a steep snow packed mountain trail.

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Credit Kino Lorber
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But the restored film clips from the Dawson City cache also trace something of a psychic history of the town. These are images that the miners, restaurant and hotel keepers, launderers, hardware dealers, tailors, barbers, prostitutes, laborers, gamblers and photographers watched in their spare time. These film images embody some of their fantasies about the world they inhabited.

It was a wild time and place, and some not-yet famous people got their start in Dawson City during the gold rush. Sid Grauman, who later built and ran the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles was a young man trying to get rich in Dawson City. Alexander Pantages, who started a chain of famous vaudeville and movie theaters. Filmmaker Bill Morrison believes that a Fred Trump operated a possibly shady hotel and restaurant.

Morrison’s film is a gorgeous, dreamy meditation on place, circumstance, history and the power of film – all contained in this play of images both of actuality and of the cinema. A building in the town of Dawson City, first used as a place for a swimming pool and a hockey rink becomes a frontier movie house. Dawson City Frozen Time has dozens of photographs of the place, the building, the people. This movie house showed melodramas about loves and crimes and violence – and these elements congeal into a story about the place and the people, as well as a larger society. And then it all grows into a contemplation on how we remember and what we remember – and really on who we are and what we think about and dream about. Dawson City Frozen Time is a mesmerizing experience.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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