As a film critic, you’re always hoping for that one movie that’s sui generis, but also an amalgam of all the many, many things that movies can do, some kind of bold, bristling charge toward an ideal of movie perfection. Right? But when you find one… how do you write about its spell, its hold, without spoiling its magic? Here’s one that’s puzzled me after a burst of bedazzling. “Dawson City: Frozen Time,” the latest, extraordinary film by Bill Morrison, washes over the brain like cool, cool history: an intricate singularity and a cinematic gold rush that I could gush about for hours but would rather point emphatically in its direction. I’ve tried a few approaches since first glimpsing it that all collapsed, spent, into piles of approving adjectives. In films like “Decasia” (2002), Morrison applied imaginative verve to bursts of celluloid film stock that had decayed across the decades, warping, flaking, melting. Morrison constructed a montage of fiction and fact, but largely a dream, always melting, the found footage edited into fantastically expressive motion.
The lyrical but consistently staggering “Dawson City” is a wholly other manner of found-footage film, 533 lost reels of nitrate film from the 1910s to twenties unearthed in the Yukon Territory where the cache of newsreels and bits of fiction had been buried for fifty years in permafrost in a sub-arctic ice rink near Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall in a Gold Rush town. Morrison’s gift for suggestive montage is undiminished, but in contemplating why these reels wound up way up north, he becomes a chieftain of documentary kismet, weaving a history of early Hollywood, manifest destiny and figures like Shoeless Joe Jackson, Jack London, Robert Service, Thomas Edison, showmen Alexander Pantages and Sid Grauman and even Donald J. Trump’s grandfather Friedrich, who launched a bordello there. The auteur excavates, and the connections made are blissful in their rangy strangeness. Alex Somers’ score is a persistent beauty.
I presented the late Sam Fuller a copy of his first book from 1944 to sign, and after a blurt of gratified swears, he inscribed it in blocky old-man print: “To Ray, This Proves You Were Born To Up-Dig.” No sir, that would be Bill Morrison, the man who was born to up-dig. Miss this cockamamie bliss, this onrushing marvel, at your risk. 120m. (Ray Pride)
“Dawson City: Frozen Time” returns to the Siskel September 15-16 and 19-20.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.