By Nicolas Rapold in the May-June 2017 Issue
The thread, or rather the long unwinding reels, running through Bill Morrison’s latest filmic excavation is a cache of 500-odd movies, discovered after decades under a swimming pool in a former Gold Rush town in the Yukon. Dawson City: Frozen Time, despite a title evoking either a 1980s Apple II adventure or a we’ve-lost-count blockbuster sequel, proves to be Morrison’s best film in years—a bona fide adventure through history, hopscotching across the turn of the 19th century.
Through a treasure trove of archival material and charming interviews, Morrison tells the story of frontier conquest in microcosm, but with the sprawl of a great novelistic historian, he also follows individual people’s stories from generation to generation. While the film’s purview may suggest a PBS documentary, the density of Morrison’s detail and the twists in his long-game storytelling make for a constant titillating simmer of discovery, a secret history round every corner. (That includes learning about early cinema entrepreneurs, and ancestors of none other than Donald J. Trump.)
All of which produces a vividness that surpasses the presentations and ambitions of, say, Morrison’s The Miners’ Hymns, in which the aesthetics of combining popular archival history and orchestral music risks feeling a little too neatly packaged. Here, aided by local historians, the filmmaker is firing on all cylinders, and, in a nice trick, tells a prevalent doc technique’s origin story by tracing the Ken Burns–style pan to an early National Film Board of Canada documentary on the Gold Rush.