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Film Stock Found in Permafrost Screens in Hanover

  • Louise Lovely in "The Social Buccaneer," one of hundreds of silent films buried beneath the permafrost of Dawson City in Canada, and rediscovered decades later. The story of the discovery is told in the movie "Dawson City: Frozen Time," which will be screened in Dartmouth College's Loew Auditorium in Hanover, N.H., on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017, at 7 p.m. (Courtesy photograph)

  • One of the many reels of the Dawson City Collection recovered in 1978. The story of the discovery is told in the movie "Dawson City: Frozen Time," which will be screened in Dartmouth College's Loew Auditorium in Hanover, N.H., on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017, at 7 p.m. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Bill Morrison, director of the movie "Dawson City: Frozen Time," which will be screened in Dartmouth College's Loew Auditorium in Hanover, N.H., on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017, at 7 p.m. (Courtesy photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2017

Dawson City, in Canada’s Yukon Territory, is a far-flung, sparsely-populated outpost in one of the remotest regions of North America. But at the turn of the 20th century, Dawson City was a frenetic crossroads for dreamers and hucksters, the enterprising and the luckless, all lured there by the Klondike Gold Rush.

With its saloons, wooden storefronts, raised boardwalks and old theaters, Dawson City is the kind of town you see in old Hollywood Westerns.

It was also the site of the discovery, in 1978, of an invaluable cache of silent feature films and newsreels that for decades had lain buried, mostly undisturbed, beneath a town skating rink.

From this cinematic gallimaufry avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison, who has also been called a visual archaeologist, created Dawson City: Frozen Time, which screens Friday, Oct. 20, in the Loew Auditorium in the Black Family Visual Arts Center at Dartmouth College. The show begins at 7 p.m. A post-screening discussion with Morrison follows.

Morrison’s films have been seen at Dartmouth before: in 2011 he and guitarist Bill Frisell brought their collaboration The Great Flood, about the 1927 Mississippi River flood, to the Hopkins Center.

This time out, Dawson City features a score by Alex Somers, an American musician and artist who produces the Icelandic experimental rock band Sigur Rós.

Because newsreels and silent films in the early days were printed on highly flammable nitrate stock, many of them burned up. They were also discarded because they were not considered significant enough to save, or they deteriorated irrecoverably over time.

Since Dawson City was at the end of the film distribution chain, and a great distance from any major metropolitan area, movies that ended up there for theatrical runs tended to stay there. As the Dawson City hoard was buried in permafrost, the cold preserved the film stock.

The trove was a major find for film and cultural historians racing to conserve the fast-disappearing legacy of early cinema. (The Dawson City find is now in Canada’s equivalent of the Library of Congress, Library and Archives Canada, in Ottawa).

In 2013, the Library of Congress issued a report on the survival of American silent film which found that just 14 percent of the feature films produced and distributed domestically from 1912 to 1929 were still extant in their original format.

Dawson City includes selections from the film cache, historic photographs and interviews with Dawson City residents. Morrison also wrote the narrative.

It is less a conventional documentary, and more a rumination on the nature of time and history, as seen through film, and the medium’s singular capacity to manipulate our sense of time.

“Time is a crucial element, both for the viewer and the filmmaker. I don’t think time is necessarily always an element in a painting or sculpture; it always plays a role in cinema,” Morrison said in a phone interview last week from Chicago.

Morrison, who lives in New York City, was given a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2014. His 2002 film Decasia was selected for the 2013 National Film Registry. Dawson City: Frozen Time premiered in September 2016 at the Venice Film Festival.

His filmmaking method is unique.

He takes found footage, such as the rich vein found in Dawson City, and cuts it together in unexpected ways that yield deeper metaphors. He does not attempt to clean up or restore the footage but uses it as is.

What some might view as a degraded film stock’s blemishes and squiggles, which often dance at the edge of the frame, or burn their way through to the center, Morrison regards as integral parts of the image.

He seizes on a central paradox of such manifestations of deterioration: while they embody the literal destruction of the film stock, they simultaneously give it a new life.

Scenes that might otherwise be hackneyed (a silent film villain with chalky make-up menaces a virginal maiden with kohl-rimmed eyes and waist-length tresses) are instead imbued with an eerie beauty, as tendrils of decay transform the imagery.

What’s intriguing about Dawson City, Morrison said, is how much it owes its existence, in some ways, to film. The movies invented our image of Dawson City and the Gold Rush. And, as Morrison points out, Dawson City, while not inventing the movies, helped promulgate them.

At its height, the town lured such ambitious and innovative young entrepreneurs as Sid Grauman and Adolph Pantages who went on to become major forces in the American film industry.

“In some ways it couldn’t shake its rough-and-tumble past and in some ways it didn’t want to. It’s still the past that they’re embracing and what they’re famous for; Dawson grew to reflect the image it was portrayed as,” he said.

But, for all the people who hoped they’d strike it rich, just as many, Morrison said, flooded in “to have the last great adventure.”

Jack London turned up in Dawson City, as did the British-Canadian poet Robert Service, and even President Trump’s grandfather Fred. It was a place built on illusion. Or, if you prefer, delusion.

The Dawson City newsreels contained, among other prizes, footage of the Gold Rush period in Dawson City. There are extraordinary scenes of hundreds of would-be gold prospectors, climbing single-file up the vertiginous 45 degree angle of the Chilkoot Pass on their way to Dawson.

The newsreels also included extremely rare film shot during the notorious 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” World Series, in which the White Sox threw the championship to the Cincinnati Reds. The silent films show the usual assortment of young women in peril, vaudeville clowns and leering villains, but they are transformed into something more arresting by the Morrison method.

If you look hard you will also see famous silent and sound-era stars at the start of their careers: Lionel Barrymore, Mae Murray (who worked with D.W. Griffith), Lon Chaney, and the Western star William S. Hart.

One of the unmistakable themes that emerged from viewing the footage was the struggle between capitalism and labor, and how it shaped Dawson City, Morrison said.

“It is the story of a gold find that pushes an indigenous population out of there,” Morrison said.

The gold was the catalyst, luring in the prospectors, the business people and entertainers catering to them and the mining companies that extracted and shipped the ore.

The newsreels also, it turned out, contained dramatic footage from the 1914 Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, when the state’s National Guard and company guards at a John D. Rockefeller-owned coal mine, fired on and killed striking miners and members of their families.

The Russian-born political organizers and anarchists Emma Goldman and her lover Alexander Berkman, filmed as they were being deported from the U.S., also made an appearance in the Dawson City trove. There are scenes of a 10,000-strong march by African-Americans in 1917 in New York, organized by the NAACP to protest discrimination and recent violence against blacks in cities across the U.S.

And Dawson City does something else: it reminds us that if the 20th century, in a sense, invented film, film also invented the 20th century — or at least how we see it.

Morrison’s next project arose out of yet another unexpected find: Last year, Icelandic fishermen trawling the Atlantic found in their nets reels of old film which, after investigation, were part of a 1960s Soviet film. Morrison has already been to Iceland to interview the fishermen.

Because of his role in the archival film world, Morrison said, there are almost no discoveries that don’t come to his attention pretty quickly.

Doing the work he does, Morrison said, “is a great privilege. It rarely becomes a job. I do feel lucky to pursue my fascinations.”

Dawson City: Frozen Time screens at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 20, in the Loew Auditorium at the Black Family Visual Arts Center at Dartmouth College. For tickets and information go to hop.dartmouth.edu, or call the box office at 603-646-2422.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.