It’s been called the 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 like 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 got 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 larger than 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 voice-over. 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.
‘Dawson City: Frozen Time’
Running time: 2 hours
Playing: Opens Friday at Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles