Film changed the world with its power to conquer time, but time always gets its revenge. According to a comprehensive survey released by the Library of Congress in 2013, 70 percent of the silent features made in America are completely lost, and of the remaining 30 percent, only about half survive in their original format. Nitrate film, the industry norm for the cinema’s first half century, was highly flammable and, as it decayed, subject to spontaneous combustion, which led to numerous fires at storage facilities. Yet films from the silent era continue to turn up. One of the more miraculous discoveries in the history of film preservation came in 1978, when more than 500 cans of nitrate reels were recovered from a sealed-up swimming pool in the Klondike—the fabled Dawson City find.
“It was a story people knew if they were interested in old film,” remembers Bill Morrison, director of the staggering documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time. “And it was a story that eclipsed the actual content of what was found, because it was such a fantastic elevator pitch. You know: ‘Did you hear about the films that were found inside a swimming pool in the Yukon?’ . . . I remember puzzling about who that was or what that was.”
The film—which screens next Thursday, October 5, at Logan Center for the Arts with the filmmaker in attendance—is a monumental accomplishment, part history and part fever dream. Morrison, 51, tells the story of Dawson from its gold-rush origins in 1897 through the lost films’ rediscovery in the 1970s, even as he traces the growing power of cinema in our national life. Photographic images, clips from the Dawson City collection, and repurposed footage from other silent films combine with Alex Somers’s stirring score to create an epic narrative. To watch Dawson City is to be pulled back into the past, speechless and humbled, as the dead reveal their secrets.
Morrison watched every newsreel in the Dawson City collection, and his historical finds are impressive; the most striking of all may be a British Canadian newsreel recording a 1919 World Series game thrown by the Chicago White Sox—indeed, one of the very plays called into question at the time. To his surprise, there had been very little interest in the Dawson City collection over the years. “Here was this incredible cache of films that was uncovered almost 40 years ago, but nobody had really looked at it,” he says. “Nobody knew that the Black Sox footage was down there. I found that on the first day!”
At the time the Dawson City films were recovered, Morrison was a 12-year-old preparing to enter eighth grade at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools in Hyde Park, where his mother taught elementary classes from 1973 to ’96. His parents had met while his father, Bill Sr., was studying at Harvard Law School and his mother, Kate, was earning an English degree at Radcliffe; after marrying, the couple moved to Chicago to be near Kate’s family, buying a house in Kenwood and raising four children (three sisters and then Bill Jr.).
The Morrisons were a moviegoing family; Bill Jr. remembers early outings to the dilapidated State and Lake in the Loop and, closer to home, the Hyde Park at 53rd and Harper (now the Harper Theater). “We were often late,” he says, “so we would stay through the interval and try to catch the beginning of the movie. It was an odd way of seeing movies. I remember we were really confused by The Sting, because we missed the whole setup and thought that it was this incredibly complicated movie. It wasn’t until later viewings that I realized it was a pretty straightforward movie, but if you didn’t see the setup, you were kinda behind the eight ball.” Even more obscure were movies at the Dunes Drive-In east of Gary, Indiana, which were visible from the Indiana Toll Road when the Morrisons drove from Kenwood out to their summer cottage in Michigan and back again. “I remember we would try to identify what movie we thought it was,” Bill says. “If we couldn’t name the title or the actor, we’d just call out what was happening on the screen. And we would always look forward to that moment.”
By 1978, Morrison had begun frequenting Cobb Hall, home of the university’s long-running Doc Films. “I got a lot of my early-70s-auteur education from those screenings,” he recalls. “It was a great way to go out at night, because basically I could just tell my mom and dad that I was going to the movies—that was an understood place where I could be. It was safe, and there was a finite time when the movie would end and they could expect me home. And it had the added benefit that if you just kept walking up to the balcony, you could sneak in.”
Morrison took advantage of Doc all through high school, graduating from the Lab Schools in 1983. He aspired to an art career, but his parents wanted him to attend a liberal arts school; at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, he studied philosophy but also spent time drawing, painting, making prints, and shooting photographs. “Once I got out to Reed, and I got out from Chicago and saw a little bit of the world and read some more, I began to understand how my art could have a philosophical side to it,” Morrison explains. “So I don’t think they were years ill spent. I started thinking about the image in a different way.”
After two years at Reed, he scored an incredible break when a recruiter for Cooper Union, the historic private college in Manhattan’s East Village, got a look at his drawing portfolio and Morrison was admitted to the school, which then offered full scholarships to every student. “It gave me great autonomy, because all of a sudden I didn’t need to ask my parents for tuition,” he says. Morrison wrote his father a letter explaining his decision, and in fall 1985 he moved to the East Village, where he’s lived ever since.
Along with the free tuition, Cooper Union offered Morrison the opportunity to study with the experimental animator Robert Breer, creator of such colorful, kinetic shorts as Eyewash (1959) and Blazes (1961), who mentored the young man for his entire four years. “Breer opened up a world for me that film can be a painting as well, in fact it can be many paintings per second,” Morrison says. “There was also a way that he held himself that I found very approachable. . . . He was a midwesterner, and I found him very funny and down-to-earth.” Under Breer’s tutelage, Morrison tried his hand at stop-motion animation but, like so many others, was discouraged by the amount of repetitive labor required. Instead he turned to “an animation by distress” in which he shot color footage, enlarged each frame onto photographic paper, splashed the paper with developer, and then shot a film frame of each print to reanimate the sequence onscreen.
After graduation Morrison worked at Cynosure, an optical printing house at the Film Center Building in Hell’s Kitchen, and found creative satisfaction making short films for the Ridge Theater, a small multimedia performance company that still serves as his home base. Eventually these commissions led him to the Library of Congress’s paper print collection, which was in the public domain and relatively easy to access. Until 1912 the library had allowed copyright registrants to submit paper prints of their films, about 40 frames to a page, in lieu of a negative, and over the years, as the original nitrate rotted away or burst into flame, paper turned out to be the more reliable storage method. The mysterious images to be found in the collection spoke to Morrison’s growing fascination with the past.
His favorite job by far, though, was washing dishes at the Village Vanguard, the famed jazz club on Seventh Avenue. “I could make my rent in a couple nights, ’cause that was all cash and I got tipped out,” he explains. “Once I got that, it allowed me an enormous amount of free time during the day to make my work. I don’t think I had to show up to the club until nine o’clock. I had a ball while I was there, I’d get home at two, and then I could get up the next morning at a reasonable hour and still have the day to myself. Even if I wanted to go out, I’d just go back to the club, and I could get in and drink for free.” Morrison worked at the Vanguard from 1991 to ’94, hearing countless sets by the likes of Art Taylor, Billy Higgins, Louis Hayes, and guitarist Bill Frisell, who would later collaborate with him on a film.
Morrison’s work for Ridge Theater had led to screenings of his 16-millimeter work at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, but as he puts it, “I was getting dangerously close to turning 30 and being a dishwasher, which was of some concern to me. It probably was to my parents as well, though they were very understanding.” A graceful exit presented itself when the acclaimed experimental filmmaker Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi), who’d been impressed by Morrison’s short The Death Train, offered him a job at Fabrica, a new film-development project Reggio was launching in Treviso, Italy, with funds from Benetton Group. After a year at Fabrica, he returned to New York with a new short, The Film of Her (1996), that not only appropriated images from the paper print collection but also delved into the collection’s history. With this meditation on the fragility of film, Morrison had found his true subject.
The Film of Her screened at numerous festivals, and Morrison picked up where he’d left off with Ridge Theater. In spring 1998 he bought a hearse, loaded some camera equipment in the coffin bay, and headed west with two pals to shoot Ghost Trip, an off-the-cuff fantasy about a man driving to his own funeral, and to screen The Film of Her at microcinemas along the way. But Morrison’s big career break didn’t arrive until the following year, when Ridge Theater was commissioned to stage a symphonic performance in Switzerland of a new symphony to be written by U.S. composer Michael Gordon. This time Morrison’s film would be central to the experience, and he came to his collaborators with a daring concept: the entire work might be assembled from old nitrate film in advanced states of decomposition.
Morrison had been mightily impressed by Lyrical Nitrate (1991), a 50-minute Dutch film assembled by Peter Delpeut from silent movies made between 1905 and 1920 and found in the attic of the Cinema Parisien in Amsterdam. Most striking for Morrison was the last ten minutes, when Delpeut relaxes his standards and includes damaged footage in which the chemical emulsion has dried up and begun to peel away from the nitrate strip. The final sequence pictures Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and no sooner has Eve given Adam the apple than the screen explodes with God’s wrath, the image disintegrating into a machine-gun spray of mottled browns, broken blacks, and gray patches crumbling into a million little fissures. “That was sort of an aha moment for me,” Morrison recalls. “Wow, the decay can really be part of the narrative.”
Not only could it be part of the narrative—it could be the entire narrative, the drama of a story replaced by the violent drama of the image fighting to survive. For research, Morrison paid a visit to the University of South Carolina, which had a nitrate film collection, and entered the search terms emulsion deterioration into the database, getting hundreds of entries; narrowing the search to severe emulsion deterioration produced a more workable list of 150. That first day he turned up the powerful image of a boxer sparring with a roiling field of cracked emulsion, as well as footage of nuns and students at a parish school that would recur throughout the finished work. Back in New York, Morrison sold the creative team on his idea. Gordon proposed “a decaying symphony,” and his score would make good on that promise with its delirious degradations of pitch and tempo. As a play on Walt Disney’s symphonic animation Fantasia, Morrison suggested the title Decasia.
With a green light from Gordon and Ridge, Morrison began digging through nitrate holdings at the Library of Congress, George Eastman House, Museum of Modern Art, and the University of South Carolina. The Library of Congress and MoMA had already transferred their holdings to safety stock, but Eastman House and USC still had live nitrate film. Back then, he remembers, archivists were more sensitive about decomposition of materials. “It was an older school,” he says. “They were not willing to show me their dirty laundry, or even admit that they had it. . . . There was this, almost embarrassment on the archives’ part, that if they showed that they had something that wasn’t pristine, then they were somehow failing at their job.”
Decasia premiered live at the 2001 Europäischer Musikmonat festival in Basel, Switzerland, with the Basel Sinfonietta positioned on a triangular frame above the audience and Morrison’s film projected onto a scrim in the center. “Wherever you walked in that space, the tuning would change, depending on whether you were closer to the instruments that were pitched flat or whether you were closer to the instruments that were pitched sharp,” Morrison recalls. “It was an otherworldly experience.” No less disorienting was Morrison’s feature, a hallucinatory journey through a world flaking away into nothingness. The imagery ranges from the representational, capturing people and places from a bygone era, to the abstract, the frame melting down into 16 Jackson Pollock paintings per second, though the most surreal shots are those in which the decay joins the action: at one point, rocket ships on a rotating carnival ride spin past the camera, the left side of the frame breaking up into white as if from the ships’ exhaust.
A release version of the film, running 67 minutes and furnished with Gordon’s score, premiered in January 2002 at the Sundance Film Festival. Morrison was enthusiastic about Decasia and ready to move up professionally: “I thought I’d paid my dues and I’d done some good work, and that I had something to say. The visual language that I had organically evolved to use, I wasn’t coming to it cold—I understood what it meant, and I understood the different layers of it. So I was pretty confident that what I was doing was strong. What I didn’t know was how other people were gonna respond to it.”
As he recalls, the movie polarized those who saw it at Sundance. “There were some highly laudatory reviews,” Morrison says, “and people who rushed at me and said, ‘You need to come be in my festival’ or ‘You need to come do this’ right afterwards. And then there were people who couldn’t get into whatever film they had tried to get into, rolled the dice with my film, and, ten minutes in, realized they were at something they had absolutely no desire to be in.” About 30 minutes into Decasia comes an image of the nuns leading their parochial students across a schoolyard, the children marching left to right and out of the frame; at one screening, Morrison remembers, audience members walking out on the movie formed a line just below the screen, filing out in the same direction as the students above their heads.
Walkouts notwithstanding, Decasia cemented Morrison’s artistic reputation. The Guardian‘s Jonathan Jones called it “a modern masterpiece,” and elaborated, “It makes you feel that the art, as opposed to the business, of cinema does have a future—even if it has to be found deep in the past.” The legendary avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger praised Decasia for being “compelling and disturbing,” and a story in the New York Times magazine quoted an awestruck Errol Morris remarking, “This may be the greatest movie ever made.” Decasia enjoyed a successful run on the festival and museum circuit, the Sundance Channel broadcast it at the end of 2002, and a DVD release from Plexi Films followed soon afterward. The greatest honor came in December 2013—two weeks after Bill Morrison Sr., had died of cancer—when the Library of Congress named Decasia to the National Film Registry of historic and culturally important works. It was the first film of the 21st century to earn that recognition.
The 12 years between Decasia‘s premiere and its selection for the National Film Registry had been busy and fulfilling for Morrison. He’d continued to work with Ridge Theater, and in 2002 he’d married his longtime collaborator Laurie Olinder, the company’s projection and set designer. The success of Decasia had brought numerous commissions for short films to accompany classical music performances, as orchestras across Europe and the U.S. installed digital screens to lure younger patrons. More recently he’d completed four short features. Spark of Being (2010), scored by jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas, retold Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with repurposed silent footage; The Miners’ Hymns (2011), with a commanding, fanfare-laden score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, pondered the closed collieries of northeast England; Tributes: Pulse (2011) was another collage of decomposing nitrate, this one paying tribute to four U.S. composers; and The Great Flood (2013), Morrison’s project with Bill Frisell, revisited the Mississippi River flood of 1927. Now Morrison was researching his most ambitious project yet, a history of the Dawson City find.
Dawson City’s geography figured heavily in the preservation of the films. Located at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers, only 165 miles south of the arctic circle, Dawson was founded after news of gold along the Yukon River brought prospectors pouring into town, the population swelling to 30,000. The city’s boom years coincided perfectly with the advent of cinema as public entertainment: by 1910 the local Orpheum Theatre was screening films regularly and the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association had turned its gymnasium into a movie theater. In a town so remote, cinema offered residents a fleeting glimpse of the wider world.
Because Dawson lay so far north, at the tail end of the distribution chain, films took forever to arrive there: moviegoers waited six months for newsreels and two or three years for features, depending on their popularity. Distributors did business with the Dawson theaters through the local Canadian Bank of Commerce, and because the shipping charge to return a nitrate print to its point of origin often exceeded the value of the print itself, the bank found itself the custodian of a large and growing collection of old films. After the town’s Carnegie library burned down in 1920, its basement space was used by the bank as a film vault, the permafrost (a layer of frozen earth about ten feet below ground level, caused by the arctic climate) serving to keep the unstable nitrate cool and safe.
By 1929, however, the library basement was nearing capacity, and the advent of talkies made the old prints seem obsolete. Clifford Thomson, a bank executive, contacted distributors in hope of returning all the films but was instructed to destroy them. In the past, unwanted films had been torched or tossed into the Yukon River, but Thomson, also treasurer of the local hockey association, came up with another idea. For years the hockey league, which now owned the DAAA building, had complained about the skating rink, which was built on top of a 20-by-30-foot swimming pool and tended to sag in the middle. Thomson had the film reels, stored six or eight to a case, loaded into the pool; the space was filled in with dirt, and a new, permanent rink was constructed over the pool. Eight years later, on December 30, 1937, the building burned to the ground—possibly as a result of other nitrate prints that had accumulated there—but the 1,500 reels buried under the rink never ignited.
Forty-one years later, in 1978, Dawson was a much different place. The Alaska Highway, built during World War II, had bypassed Dawson City for Whitehorse, 300 miles to the south, and the other town had usurped Dawson’s status as capital of the Yukon territory. The Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation, which had consolidated all mining interests in the area by 1927 and spent years dredging the local rivers, pulled out in 1966, leaving both the local economy and the landscape wrecked (Morrison’s film includes aerial shots of the scarred earth). Dawson’s population had shrunk to fewer than 1,000 people the day a local alderman began bulldozing the remains of the DAAA building to clear land for a new recreation center and broke through the planks beneath the hockey rink to discover the wooden cases buried underneath.
The little tomb was immediately recognized as an important discovery, and a restoration project took shape under the supervision of Sam Kula, director of the National Film, Television and Sound Archives in Ottawa. Michael Gates, a conservator for the Klondike National Historic Sites who had first inspected the pool site, secured the use of an icehouse at one of the old mining camps near Dawson to use as a cold storage unit, and Kathy Jones, director of the Dawson City Museum and Historical Society, recruited students to unspool and evaluate the 1,500-odd reels unloaded from the pool. Nearly 1,000 reels were too far gone. “I’m not sure what condition the emulsion was in while it was frozen underground,” Morrison says, “but certainly it didn’t help to have it then brought out into the August summer of the Yukon, with the change in temperature and the change in humidity. Evidently if you put your finger over the image, the emulsion would come off on your finger.”
Morrison had long considered the Dawson City find as a potential subject in itself, and the idea solidified unexpectedly when, in March 2013, he visited Ottawa to screen his films. Paul Gordon, whose Lost Dominion Screening Collective had organized one of the programs, supervised digital conversion of celluloid film at Library and Archives Canada, which held the complete Dawson City collection of 372 titles. The library would be acquiring a new 4K scanner the following year, he informed Morrison; this would enable the filmmaker to take home high-resolution files of anything in the collection, all of which was in the public domain.
At a film festival later that year, Morrison found an eager partner in producer Madeleine Molyneaux, and they secured early production funds from the Museum of Modern Art (in exchange for a 35-millimeter print of the finished product) and the French production company Arte France. Morrison flew out to Ottawa in January 2014 to start viewing the collection, which had all been transferred to 35-millimeter safety stock in the 1980s as a joint project of L&A Canada and the U.S. Library of Congress. (The nitrate originals of the U.S. films were repatriated, and both institutions got a complete set of 35-millimeter transfers). The Dawson City collection contained no lost masterpieces—anything of real value had been returned to distributors back in the day—yet there were numerous serials and more than 100 newsreels from the U.S. and the UK.
Especially notable were 26 editions of British Canadian Pathé News—basically the British Pathé newsreel with a Canadian item tacked on at the end—which were produced between 1919 and ’22 but had never been available in any archive. Footage from game one and game four of the World Series, which pitted the Sox against the Cincinnati Reds, turned up in a 1919 edition of British Canadian Pathé, with warm-up shots of pitcher Eddie Cicotte (who admitted taking money from gamblers to throw the series) and outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (who confessed to the same but later recanted), and a long shot of Cicotte’s purposely botched double play from the fourth inning of game one. Morrison thought about holding back this discovery for the film’s release, but Gordon wanted to post it online right away. The story picked up steam, and Morrison visited Sirius XM’s MLB Network to talk about the discovery with radio jock Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, the guest spot providing a brief, self-introductory clip for Dawson City.
Morrison returned to Ottawa in June for another viewing marathon, though the entire collection amounted to about 500,000 feet of film, a daunting prospect for any researcher. “Even if you’re fast-forwarding, the act of carefully handling a 35-millimeter print and placing it on a flatbed and viewing it, and then recanting it and making a note in an Excel spreadsheet or whatever you’re doing, you’re lucky to get through 20 prints in a day, let alone that those all have to be called from another facility,” Morrison says. “So I was working my way through this, but realizing that I needed to find another way of viewing these films.” Fortunately the library installed its new scanner, after which Morrison began shipping 12-terabyte hard drives to Gordon to be loaded up with his footage requests and returned; the arrangement allowed Morrison the luxury of acquiring high-resolution, ready-to-screen files of everything he requested, even before he’d looked at it.
As Morrison made his way through the newsreel collection, more treasures surfaced. Universal Animated Weekly had footage of the Negro Silent Protest Parade, a New York march organized by W.E.B. DuBois in July 1917 to protest violence against African-Americans across the U.S. British Canadian Pathé recorded the aftermath of the Wall Street bombing in September 1920, when an explosion across the street from J.P. Morgan’s headquarters killed 38 people. From a 1914 edition of Pathé Weekly came footage shot after the Ludlow Massacre, when the Colorado National Guard opened fire on striking miners from John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, killing two dozen. Another edition pictured anarchist leader Alexander Berkman speaking in support of the Colorado miners outside Rockefeller’s New York offices two weeks later; by a stroke of luck, Morrison also located a 1919 edition of International News that showed the mass deportation of political radicals aboard the “Russian Ark” at Ellis Island, and found a shot of Berkman stopping to look at the camera before heading down the gangplank.
These discoveries heightened Morrison’s sense of Dawson City: Frozen Time as a film about “the tragedy of capitalism,” though of course that theme was inherent in the town’s founding amid the Klondike gold rush, and in the evacuation of the indigenous Han tribe from the area. “Going in, I saw that there was this chronological affinity between the birth of cinema and the discovery of gold in Dawson City. Before the discovery of gold, there were thousands and thousands of years—20,000 years, even—of sustained existence by a native people, and that doesn’t exist anymore in our continent, in the same way. . . . And then cinema represents another line in the sand, where stories are never gonna be told the same way again.”
Dawson City: Frozen Time runs a full two hours—marathon length for a theatrical documentary—yet Morrison, who edits his own films, weaves together his diverse source materials, not to mention his twin tales of gold and nitrate, with a master’s ease. Each clip is identified and dated with onscreen captions (in the manner of Thom Andersen’s film essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, a favorite of Morrison’s), yet clusters of images selected from dramatic films often serve to illustrate true stories from Dawson’s past. At one point, amid a documentary sequence on the harsh conditions faced by prospectors, footage from Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) shows the Tramp hopping onto a snowdrift and sliding down a mountainside, the reality and the dream merging. One of the most beautiful montages in Dawson City, communicating how newsreels delivered the outside world to the frozen north, builds from the intimate (microscopic images of frog eggs, a series of flowers in bloom) to the immense, with people and events from the four corners of the earth.
Morrison and Molyneaux premiered Dawson City at the Venice film festival in September 2016, and the film has toured the U.S. this year (next Thursday’s program at Logan Center follows two earlier Chicago engagements at Gene Siskel Film Center). Kino Lorber will release a Blu-Ray/DVD edition at the end of October, with a Morrison interview and additional films from the Dawson City collection as bonus material. Meanwhile, Morrison is already researching his next project: earlier this month, he and Olinder traveled to Iceland to inspect a recovered print of the 1968 Soviet feature The Village Detective, which was found by a fishing boat as it trawled the North Atlantic Sea. “The reels themselves have completely rusted off,” Morrison explains, “so you just have these four naked rolls of film that have melded together into a single cylinder.” From this exotic find, he wants to spin a screen biography of the movie’s star, Mikhail Zharov, a beloved character actor whose career spanned the Soviet era and whose fortunes rose and fell with the political tides.
When I ask Morrison if he’ll ever exhaust his chosen idiom, he concedes there are challenges to the archival film, but he laughs at the notion that he’ll ever run out of source material. “There’s a ton of stuff in archives all over the world,” he says. “Think of all the stuff in Russia that hasn’t been catalogued at all. There might be footage of Rasputin that we don’t know about! I know there are people that say, ‘OK, this is another archival compilation with music.’ But the films are very different, and they use archival film, and the fact that it’s deteriorated, in very different ways. So I think, if the future is endless, so is the past.” v