NYFF Interview: Bill Morrison
For over 30 years, the filmmaker Bill Morrison has been resurrecting forgotten footage and finding its place within often equally forgotten historical and cultural contexts. His works, which include Decasia (2002) and The Miners’ Hymns (2011), not only explain the history of cinema but also open up the past in ways other documentarians haven’t been able to match. Morrison is like a forensic technician who builds his films on hard evidence.
In his latest, Dawson City: Frozen Time, the hard evidence consists of reels of nitrate film that was buried under a hockey rink in a Yukon town at the end of the silent era. Rediscovered close to 40 years ago, the restored and preserved footage includes in some cases the only extant copies of features, shorts, and newsreels from the turn of the 20th century to the mid-twenties. Using selections from this footage and a trove of archival material, Morrison examines the rise and fall of Dawson City, a gold mining town that was the inspiration for novelists, playwrights and filmmakers.
Morrison touches on trends and issues that affect us to this day. The consolidation of capital, exploited labor, a degraded environment, the growth of the entertainment industry all figure into Dawson City: Frozen Time. Morrison combines scenes and performances from films spanning the decades into a new narrative that helps open up the past. This imagery is tied to a dramatic score by Sigúr Ros collaborator Alex Somers, whose brother John contributed to the film’s musique concrete sound design. Like Morrison’s other work, Dawson City: Frozen Time also gives viewers the opportunity to luxuriate in the luster and sheen of nitrate film. Movies may have matured since 1906, but judging from the clips here, they are rarely as beautiful.
Film Comment corresponded with Morrison about the film on the eve of its U.S. premiere in the 54th New York Film Festival.
Dawson City: Frozen Time
How has your approach to filmmaking evolved since your earlier use of nitrate film in work such as Decasia?
Throughout my career, I have made films that have told stories woven out of the bits and pieces of many films taken from many different archives. You can go back to early work like Footprints , The Film of Her , and Decasia , through Spark of Being , The Miners’ Hymns , Just Ancient Loops , The Great Flood , and all the way up to the films I just finished in the past few weeks, Dawson City: Frozen Time and Different Trains. Whether you would categorize these films as documentary, narrative, or other, for these particular titles, I was in the archive hunting for certain images to get from point A to point B, to tell a story. I feel I have evolved in the sense that I have more confidence that I can tell more and more complex and layered stories using archival sources—that the images are out there waiting for me, and if I listen to them they will guide me, if the story lends itself to being told that way.
For instance, you can see a direct correlation between Dawson City: Frozen Time in 2016, and a film I made 20 years ago, The Film of Her, in 1996. Both films tell the story of the rediscovery of a long forgotten archive using the films from that archive, and other supporting material, to do so. Dawson City: Frozen Time is of course 10 times longer, and touches on many, many, other stories along the way. But it is also deeply rooted in historical fact, and cites its sources as part of its story-telling form. The Film of Her was part fact, part fiction, and moved freely between the two to create a mythology. So they are very different films.
While I have never been comfortable being labeled as such and such a type of filmmaker, in recent years I have embraced at least the term “documentary” more, as it seems to be a much broader and understandable word for the type of filmmaking that interests me. I have also found such incredible and nuanced stories simply by looking at both the historical details of a given event, and the extraordinary circumstances that allowed me to examine them. And I also believe the documentary genre has grown in recent years to incorporate so many different types and styles of filmmaking, and ways of asking important questions on film.
As you point out, the Dawson City cache was rediscovered back in 1979. What took so long for this documentary to emerge?
The Dawson City Film Find actually happened in 1978, and the films have been restored and catalogued since 1979. I first heard of it as an art student at the Cooper Union in the late 1980s. It seems that film archivists and cinephiles who are my age and older (50-plus) have some vague familiarity with the story, while most of those who are younger than me have never heard of the story. There was only one academic article about the collection by Sam Kula, director of audiovisual archives in the National Archives of Canada, entitled “Up From the Permafrost: The Dawson City Collection.” Ever since I first heard of the Find, for me it had always been one of those great projects out there that I would keep in my sock drawer, hoping to one day get a chance to make it in the style that I made The Film of Her.
Then in March of 2013, Paul Gordon invited me to screen some of my work at the Bytowne Cinema in Ottawa, for a film series he organized with friends called the Lost Dominion Screening Collective. Paul also mentioned that he also worked as a film conservator for Library and Archives Canada, and that if I ever wanted to work with their collection, he could be a good point of contact. I asked him about the Dawson City Collection, and he confirmed that they had all the original 145 nitrate rolls that had Canadian content, and a 35mm safety of the entire collection of 533 reels. A light went off and I realized the moment had arrived to make the Dawson City film.
Having an ally inside an archive is very important if you want to make this type of work. Upon return visits to Ottawa, and to Gatineau, Quebec, where the archive is actually housed, Paul gave me a searchable master list of all the Dawson City titles from the collection. He showed me lists describing obscure travel films and home movies that were shot in and around Dawson throughout the century, and which became crucial building blocks for my film.
Another notable collaborator was the film’s producer, Madeleine Molyneaux. In November 2013, I described the project to Madeleine who immediately liked it, understood its significance, and that it had to get made. It was really through her efforts and belief in the project that we were able to pitch the project at the Visions du Réel Festival, in May 2014, in Nyon, Switzerland, and eventually secure funding from ARTE to make the film, with additional support coming from our friends at MoMA.
I had returned to LAC in January 2014, and that time I discovered the Black Sox World Series footage the first day I was back in the archive. No one had been aware that this footage existed, even though it had been restored and catalogued, and then had sat preserved on a shelf for over 35 years at the time. I am not faulting the Archive—they did their job. It is up to us as researchers and historians to find the context for these pieces of history that have been recovered, and show why they are significant. But once LAC posted the footage and the story went out on the newswire that Spring, Dawson City, the Gold Rush and the Film Find were news once again as the backstory of this rare baseball footage.
At this time a new 4K DFT (Digital Film Technology) Scanity film scanner was being installed at LAC. The Dawson films I was calling up were some of the first material tested out on that scanner. It was up and running in March 2014, which allowed me to incorporate high-resolution scans of the original nitrate and safety prints from the collection in my film. Again, this is another reason that this was an opportune time to make this film now.
Around this time I first contacted Kathy and Michael Gates. The Gateses’ contribution cannot be underestimated, as they were on the site soon after the 1978 Film Find was made, and took photographs that are crucial to any telling of the story. I first approached them in April 2014 to license their photographs, knowing that I would not have a film without them. Later that year I flew to Whitehorse, Yukon, to interview them on my way to and from Dawson City.
They became determined and tireless researchers on the project, the likes of which I had never encountered anywhere else. They literally sifted through newspaper files year by year looking for any mention of the films. I am greatly indebted to Michael and Kathy for the broad reach and minute detail that this film has regarding the history of the films in Dawson City.
I think that like so much of Dawson’s history, and History in general, the story emerged for a while, and it had begun to settle again, and then it pokes up through the ice again, in the way that stories do. We see how in the film it was quickly forgotten that the reels were buried under the rink. Only nine years after the films were buried in 1929, a newspaper account describing how pieces of film were emerging as the rink was being rebuilt in 1938 speculates that the reels were from an “ancient” time. And then when the films were rediscovered in 1978, while it came as a shock to most of the world, at least one old-timer recalled the films emerging from the ice as a child, and knew that they were buried there the whole time. So I think the story is somewhat a metaphor for how cultural memory works. And this was another time for it to resurface from the permafrost.
Dawson City: Frozen Time
At what point in looking at the footage did you decide on the structure for Frozen Time? Was there a specific impetus?
Except for its introductory scenes which take us from the present day back to 1979, a year after the films were discovered in Dawson City, the film plays out in a pretty linear chronology from 1846 to 1978. Within that structure, there were many stories I wanted to tell, some specifically about Dawson City and its denizens, and some that were found on the reels discovered in the excavation. The trick was to use discovered footage, and other supporting material, to tell the story of how the films got there, and then to also tease out the same themes that were implied in the Dawson story from the newsreels to create a larger sense of how what was happening in Dawson was a microcosm of what was happening everywhere, and can only be understood in that context. So we jump between the micro and macro quite a bit, going from the world stage, to the locale of Dawson, and back wide, many times. The challenge was finding those stories that told both the local Dawson story and the larger world story at the same time, and where we could pivot between the two. I am very proud of the fact that each scene follows logically from the one before it and segues to the one that follows, even as we are jumping around the globe and following many different stories throughout the century. The wonderful thing about a chronological structure is that things resurface organically and connections may be drawn to earlier stories without needing to hammer home their relationship.
And for me it was always an epic story. I always thought that it was significant that the discovery of gold on the fishing camp that would become Dawson City happened the same year that large-format cinematic projection was first taking place elsewhere in the world, and that the story of cinema and the story of Dawson City were intertwined. But I had no idea to what degree. So as my research showed more and more famous Hollywood personalities had gotten their start, or passed through Dawson City, I adopted these short modular histories that connect Dawson with the larger world of Cinema and entertainment. But I also came to understand Dawson City as, in many ways a place of fiction, of dreams. The Dawson City that the Gold Rush stampeders imagined they were going to find was quite different from the one they finally arrived at in 1898. That town, without a history or organic growing period of its own, was in some ways a re-imagining of other towns, with their traditions of glamour and excess. An early exhibition of Eric Heggs photographs of the Gold Rush caused a riot in New York. An early Edison title, Poker in Dawson City (1901), shows card players cheating and then brawling with one another, although the film was actually shot in New Jersey by men who had never set foot in the Yukon.
What actually went on there and what was reported and repeated was constantly embellished and caricaturized, so that the town at times resembled a stage show of larger-than-life characters, real and imagined. In 1907 Robert Service published his famous collection of poems Song of a Sourdough…, and in 1909 his novel, The Trail of ’98, was published. By the 1920s these stories and images had inspired major Hollywood movies, Winds of Chance (1925), The Gold Rush (1925), The Trail of ’98 (1928). Decades later came the landmark short film City of Gold (1957), which also trafficked in Heggs’s imagery of the Gold Rush, and contemporary footage of a town which was stuck in time, a prisoner of its history, told through the recollections of one of its favorite sons, Pierre Berton.
Dawson always was a place situated between dreams and memories. There always has been a blurry distinction between the two, and that has also always been the domain of cinema. I tried to make a film that behaved the same way.
Dawson City: Frozen Time
Several famous names swirl about the story. Was anyone a particular surprise for you?
The characters who actually passed through Dawson City are like something out of a Hollywood Frontier theme park: Chief Isaac, Jack London, Fred Trump, Sid Grauman, Tex Rickard, Klondike Kate, Alexander Pantages, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, Fatty Arbuckle, Daniel and Solomon Guggenheim, Robert Service, William Desmond Taylor.
I was surprised to learn that Donald Trump’s grandfather built the nest egg of the family’s riches from a brothel servicing stampeders passing through Whitehorse. When I discovered that story, it was still primary season, and Donald was one of 14 Republican candidates for the U.S. Presidency. So that has also been surprising, how his story has changed in significance, because at one point it was hardly worth mentioning.
In addition to learning that Fatty Arbuckle played Dawson’s stages, I also was surprised to find footage of Arbuckle that had been buried in the swimming pool in the Dawson City Film Find collection. Likewise, I was surprised that there was footage of Alice Guy Blaché’s Solax Film Lab burning down in the collection. And that there was original home-movie footage of both The DAAA Theater and the Orpheum Theater burning down in 1937 and 1940 respectively, shot by George Black, a Gold Rush stampeder who became the Commissioner of the Yukon, and eventually held a seat in Parliament. The footage of Chief Isaac from 1925 is extremely rare, and has now been circulated within the Yukon Archive and to the members of the First Nation Tr’ondek Hwechin.
And again, the Black Sox footage was a great surprise for me that surprised many others as well. The 1919 World Series footage had been archived and catalogued at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) since 1978. As a baseball fan, I did a search for baseball games in the collection, and as a White Sox fan, I was thrilled to find that both the 1917 World Series, which the Sox won, and the 1919 World Series, which they lost, were both represented in the collection. Now I also knew that this collection had not been viewed that much. All the 35mm reference prints I was using to do research in Gatineau, QC, were in pristine condition. There had not been a lot of people who had been calling them up and looking at them—that was clear. So I had a hunch that no one realized that the 1919 World Series was the famed Black Sox World Series, in which the White Sox threw the Series to the Reds in exchange for a payoff from New York gamblers. When I discussed the film with LAC Senior Film Conservator Paul Gordon, he thought the Library should post the film on their YouTube channel. I also posted a frame on my Facebook account, where David Filipi, film programmer at the Wexner Center, saw it and ultimately included the film in his rare baseball film program. Then Terry Mikesell, a journalist for the Columbus Dispatch, picked up the story and it went out on the wire, and from there, a veritable media storm followed. Overnight the YouTube link of the 1919 World Series received 350,000 hits. One week in May 2014 I was doing three interviews a day with journalists in the U.S. and Canada about the Black Sox film. Jacob Pomrenke, writing for the Society for Baseball Research, identified a certain play as the botched double play of the fourth inning of Game 1, which was cited in courtroom testimony as evidence that the Sox had thrown the Series. And later in the year I appeared on MLB’s High Heat with Chris Russo, the scene that begins my film. So for many people, their introduction to this story may have come through this footage. But for me, it was a fascinating look at what captured the public’s imagination after all these years.
As I said, the footage has sat restored for 38 years. There hasn’t been much written about it. Not a lot of people have viewed the footage. So I thought it was interesting that in 2014 the people who really got excited about old film are the baseball nuts, who it turns out are among our most avid historians. The High Heat segment I thought was an interesting way to begin the film because it is so clearly an artifact of our current culture, the graphic, the sound effect, the narration. It meets the audience in media language of the time and place we live in now. From there we go back in time, to 1979 when the films had been restored and were first being shown publicly in Dawson City at the Palace Grand. This trajectory allowed me to go further back, to the beginning of celluloid and then cinema, and from there tell the story of cinema as it related to Dawson City.
Daniel Eagan is a critic and film historian living in New York City. He is currently working on the third volume of America’s Film Legacy, a survey of the National Film Registry.