The Dawson City film find hits the silver screen

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When our shuttle emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan, I knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore, nor in the Yukon for that matter. My wife Kathy and I had reached the destination of our trans-continental journey: New York City, where we had been invited to attend the 54th annual New York Film Festival.

Our assignment: to participate in the North American premiere of the new documentary/art film about the Dawson City film find, a cache of silent film reels that were uncovered from the permafrost in Dawson City in 1978. Titled Dawson City: Frozen Time, it was produced and directed by New York film maker Bill Morrison. We were asked to participate in the question and answer session that was to follow each of the two screenings.

But first, we had to reach our hotel. Manhattan was unlike anything I have ever experienced before. The buildings towered high above us creating avenues that were more like canyons; the streets were noisier than I have ever experienced and crowded with humanity. Times Square was illuminated by massive flat screens advertising every imaginable product and the seething mass of humanity flowed along as though part of some mysterious migration. The effect was hypnotic; I wanted to open the door of the shuttle bus, jump out, and join the throng.

The streets were congested and the taxis and buses lurched along, stopping and starting, merging one moment, creating their own lanes the next, squeezing into any opening that appeared and dodging pedicabs, cyclists, and pedestrians who didn’t seem to obey any rules of conduct. It was more like a giant dodge’em car ride in an amusement park; the drivers deserved danger pay.

We finally reached our hotel, and after some confusion, checked into our seventh storey suite, where, despite the windows and heavy curtains, the sounds of the street, especially the loudest sirens I had ever heard, penetrated our comfortable refuge.

We awoke the following morning prepared for the first screening of the film at the Lincoln Centre, which was a crazy 10-minute taxi ride away. In the theatre, the lights went down, the buzz of the full house died, and the screen came to life.

We had seen the rough cut of the film on our computer back in Whitehorse, but now we were assaulted by the images on the big screen. And the soundtrack, created by contemporary composer Alex Somers, washed over us. The applause from the audience at the end of the film was thunderous and continued until the credits had finished rolling.

What makes the Dawson collection so important is the rarity of the content. The nitrate film stock of the silent film era is composed of nitrocellulose, a close relative of gun cotton. It is highly flammable, can be explosive, and is prone to decomposition. Over the decades, millions of feet of early film footage have been destroyed in massive warehouse fires, the images of the film that survived has become blemished and blistered.

The record of films from the silent era is incomplete. The Dawson City film find represents a collection of hundreds of Canadian newsreels and Hollywood films that had been considered lost forever. Thanks to the collaboration of the National Film Archives in Ottawa, and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the films from the Dawson collection have been reproduced for posterity.

Yet despite the efforts of these two institutions, the collection has languished in storage, the content overlooked and largely overshadowed by the bizarre tale of how they were discovered, recovered and restored. Director Bill Morrison may be the first person to take a serious look at the content of the collection in the 38 years since they were taken from the frozen ground in Dawson City where they had been buried for five decades.

Morrison has had a long relationship with silent films. He started out as a painter at the Cooper Union School of art but was always fascinated by how film and music work together to influence the emotion of the viewer. He quickly shifted from painting to music-based film.

He was fascinated by old silent films because of the ways in which they deteriorated and saw the aging films as a metaphor for the human body. He carved out a niche in the film world combining forms of contemporary music with old films that exhibited the signs of image degradation. Among his body of work is the classic film Decasia, which is the first film of the twenty-first century to be added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress (in 2013). Decasia combines the music of composer Michael Gordon with the degraded images from old nitrate-based silent films.

Another Morrison film, The Great Flood, depicts the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River using old silent film footage with a musical score written and performed by Bill Frisell. The narrative is sustained without words, by a sparse scattering of text. Released in 2013, it received the Smithsonian Ingenuity Award for historical scholarship the following year. According to Morrison, they saw it as a new approach to interpreting history.

Morrison had been aware of the Dawson City film reels, having heard of it as a student in the 1980s, but the memory of these films was lost to newer generations of film students.

Then, in March of 2013, he was invited to Ottawa to screen some of his work at a film series organized by Paul Gordon. In conversation with Gordon, who is a film conservator with Library and Archives Canada (LAC), Morrison learned that 145 reels of the Dawson City Collection that had Canadian (but no Yukon) content were housed in Ottawa. Along with these, LAC held copies of several hundred more reels from the Dawson City collection containing Hollywood content that had been copied by the Library of Congress.

The archives in Ottawa had just acquired new digital scanning technology that made it possible to produce high-resolution copies of the original film. The Dawson film collection was among the first material to be reproduced in this manner. This rendered the films in a format that that lent itself to modern film production. Thus, the building blocks were in place to create Dawson City: Frozen Time.

Next week, I will describe the film and how it came together.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing a book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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