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Explosive Memories: Five Questions for Dawson City: Frozen Time Director Bill Morrison

Dawson City: Frozen Time

The poetics of decomposition are the haunting, thrilling and, in the case of his latest feature, Dawson City: Frozen Time, historically revelatory stuff of the cinema of Bill Morrison. In varying degrees and across films like The Miner’s Hymn, The Great Flood and Decasia — the latter dubbed “the best film ever made” by Errol Morris — Morrison has made the excavation of lost cinematic images both an informative and sensory-impactful experience. In the new Dawson City: Frozen Time, Morrison both dramatizes and draws upon the discovery of over 500 silent era films found iced and buried in a swimming pool in a town in northwest Canada. Comprising romances, dramas and newsreels, the films were discarded because, in most cases, they had reached the end of the distribution line. Once shipped so far north in North America, they were simply too costly to return. And that they, and so many other silver nitrate prints, were even stored at all after exhibition strikes one as a highly remarkable fact after seeing this film. As I discuss with Morrison below, Dawson City: Frozen River makes the case for cinema as the most dangerous art form of all time; the flammability of these early prints causes a succession of fires that continue even after the industry shifts to non-flammable stock.

As with Decasia, viewers of Dawson City: Frozen Time can immerse themselves in not just the rich poetry of early cinema but the visual pleasures provided by abstract patterns caused by the effect of time and natural processes on these images. At the same time, this near-silent film — most narration is delivered through title cards, although some interview material bookends the picture — delivers a wealth of historical commentary that speaks to a wider-than-arthouse audience. In addition to its story of film exhibition and distribution, Dawson City: Frozen Time tells compelling yarns about the industrialization of the mining industry, economic development in North America and even professional baseball and players rights after the infamous 1919 World Series. Scored by Sigur Rós‘s Alex Somers, Dawson City: Frozen Timewhich opens today at the IFC Center — is simply not to be missed. Below, via email, I asked Morrison about the differences between this new film and Decasia, his archival challenges and whether new dangers have replaced old when it comes to the art form of cinema.

Filmmaker: You previously explored the visual and metaphorical qualities of decaying film stock in Decasia. Amidst the historical narratives of Dawson City there exists also a kind of appreciation of the inadvertent beauty caused by physical decay. How did you approach this element of the film in comparison to Dawson City, and what were your goals in terms of balancing this sort of aesthetic appreciation with the historical narratives?

Morrison: Decasia and Dawson City: Frozen Time are two very different films, and they actually show two different types of decay. In Decasia, I mostly selected singular scenes showing acute nitrate decomposition to form the basis of the film and its narrative. With nitrate decay, the image bends and buckles as the nitrate base slowly transforms over time beneath the emulsion. The decay seems to haunt the image like a ghost — almost like a new character in the film. The Dawson City collection, on the other hand, was fairly well preserved in its frozen tomb, and ironically does not show that much nitrate decay to the base. What you do see with the Dawson collection is considerable water damage, which it largely suffered once it was exhumed from its burial place. This is seen as the white streaks on the margin of the frame — the distinctive “Dawson Flutter,” as it is known in archival circles, which seems to sit on top of the image like a flickering patina, but does not appear to alter the shape and form of the image as with the nitrate decay. In Dawson City, I collected my favorite scenes where the characters in a scene seem to be reacting to this water damage, and I edited them together to form the conclusion of the film — a kind of ode to Decasia. But I did not otherwise fetishize this type of decay elsewhere in the film as I did throughout Decasia, as it is appears pretty consistently throughout the collection, and is not really a source of wonder for me in the same way that that the nitrate decay is. The historical narrative, and vast trove of footage supporting it, is the true source of wonder for me in Dawson City: Frozen Time.

Dawson City: Frozen Time

Filmmaker: When you first delved into the archive of these rediscovered silent films, how did you approach and enter the material? And how did you then decide upon the manner in which you’d select and organize the clips we see in the movie? And, on a technical level, what were the biggest challenges in terms of working with this material?

Morrison: Technically, the great physical challenges that this collection once faced were solved by archivists back in 1978. The preservation team at the National Archives of Canada developed a re-wash technique to deal with the unstable images once these films arrived in Ottawa, and between Library and Archives Canada and the Library of Congress, the entire collection was catalogued, printed onto 35mm safety stock, and has been preserved in climate controlled vaults for the last 38 years. I am fortunate to have good working relationships with both Libraries, and basically any reel from the collection that I wanted to see, one institution or the other was able to scan it for me. I first went through a datbase of the collection and selected films that included keywords in their description that were also in my narrative — occurrences of the word “gold” or “swimming pool” or “film,” for example. As I amassed these files on my hard drives and went through them all, I started to make sequences out of similar shots to form a sort of stock library — “baseball,” “entering / exiting,” “WWI” or “reacts to decay.” Eventually larger themes emerged from the footage — “Anarchists,” “Labor” and “Corporatization” — and these coalesced with the history I was trying to tell of the town and of the century.

Filmmaker: One of the more fascinating elements of the film relates to the 1919 World Series and your discovery of visual documentation of one of the disputed plays. Among the many elements of chance that led to this discovery is simply your own knowledge of baseball and your own interest in closely examining this footage. What kinds of possible unexplored riches still exist in the archive, do you believe?

Morrison: Having shown this film in Europe a few times, I’m afraid that not everyone the world over would agree that the baseball segment is the most fascinating part of the film. But growing up a White Sox fan on the South Side of Chicago, one of the first searches I made in this collection was for White Sox footage, and so I discovered the 1919 World Series on the very first day I spent at the archive in Ottawa. (It took me another six months before I got around to looking for Cubs footage, but it’s in there too, if anyone is interested.). The close examination of the 1919 World Series fills several roles within the film. On a narrative level, it is part of the larger Labor story — baseball players in that era were unable to form a union, were badly exploited by the owners, and were therefore vulnerable to bribes from gamblers. The famous anti-labor judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who has been seen deporting union organizers in the film up until this point, is named the first commissioner of baseball in the wake of the “Black Sox” scandal, thereby assuring that there would not be a baseball players union during his lifetime.

But the even more compelling story is how this footage represents the amazing coincidence that this collection exists at all today. It is 5 minutes of 35mm footage from that infamous World Series that no one knew existed before 2014, and it happens to feature one of the most suspicious innings, the fourth inning of Game One, which includes a failed double play that is closely examined in my film. That that inning was ever filmed, before any knowledge that it showed a crime being committed, and that it was then made it into an edit of a newseel segment in which this one random inning represented most of the coverage devoted to an entire eight game series, that was just one of six news stories on that reel, and that one print of that newsreel would years later find its way up to Dawson City, in the Yukon territory, where it was projected to audiences, before being stored in a library basement for seven or eight years, and then being buried in the ground for 49 years, and then, once exhumed and restored, was again stored in an archive for another 38 years before being discovered — it is just an unfathomable chain of events. So the 1919 World Series footage becomes a way of chasing time in the film. In an ode to Chris Marker’s La Jetée, it is the moment in the middle of the film when time is stretched and suspended, and we search these slowly advancing frames for evidence of a narrative that was formed well after the play was made, as this narrative about how we are able to see this film is now unfolding before our eyes.

And there are many other stories that are still hidden in this collection. There are 372 titles contained on 533 reels in the Dawson City Film Find Collection. In my film we glimpse moments from only 124 of those 372 titles, so only one third of the entire collection has any kind of representation in my film. I was most fascinated by the newsreel material. This is a tremendous resource for people looking for stories about what was happening 100 years ago. For example, this year marks the 100 year anniversary of W.E. B. Du Bois’ Silent Parade of African Americans protesting police and mob violence as they silently marched down Fifth Avenue in July 1917, the first ever civil rights demonstration in New York. It will also mark the 100-year anniversary of the 12,000 women who marched on the eve of the New York State referendum on Women’s Suffrage in October 1917, a key moment in the Suffrage movement. Both those parades are docuemted on newsreel in this collection. This collection is an invaluable resource to gauge both how far we have come in 100 years, and unfortunately, how far we still have to go.

Filmmaker: Could you discuss working with Alex Somers, your composer, and the role of texture in the score? I was fascinated by how the relatively simple compositional themes were given so much varied shading in terms of instrumentation and the use of noise and distortion. What sorts of direction did you give him for different parts of the movie?

Morrison:Working with Alex was a real joy. He has such great compositional ideas, and was able to realize them with an amazing set of producing skills and access to the musical community in Reykjavik. We talked about how this story was basically a tragedy, the inexorable death knell of capitalism running through the century. We also discussed using sound effects as a sort of musique concrete score within the score, comprised of sounds suggested by a scene. For this, Alex suggested using his brother John Somers, who created the beautiful sound design, which was then tuned to Alex’s score. John further had the idea of using Isadora to design a program that could monitor the degree to which a scene showed the “Dawson Flutter,” and then feed that information into an audio processor, so that there were at times a direct correlation between the flutter seen on the frame and heard on the audio track.

Filmmaker: Finally, your work has dealt with the relationship of cinema to mortality, but what I experienced watching Dawson City was simply a sense of wonder that our medium of cinema was even allowed to live on past its early years. The succession of fires chronicled in the film, not just in Dawson City but elsewhere, made film seem to me to be the most dangerous art form ever. It’s interesting to think about this in today’s digital world, where other sorts of danger manifest themselves around moving images. Any thoughts?

Morrison: As much as I love nitrate film, I still think it is unconscionable that it was still used for 40 years after Safety film was developed. We lost so many lives, not to mention film collections, because we were essentially using an explosive to store our cinematographic memories. As outlined above, it is nothing short of a miracle that this collection exists, and to the remarkable degree that is does. In my film, it is seen as the one “silver lining” in a century of destruction and loss. Of course we have all read that we may now be living in a historic black hole of media storage, where all the films we are now creating and storing digitally are destined for obsolescence. There is also the grave danger in the loss of privacy we are all experiencing by becoming an essentially digital society, capable of recording and distributing anything, anytime. For my part, I am currently having a 35mm print made from the master files of Dawson City: Frozen Time, and MoMA will store that print in their climate-controlled archive in Pennsylvania. So there is a good chance this film will outlive me, even if it may take somebody 100 years from now to dig it up again.

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