Dawson City: Frozen Time [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Second Run
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (24th February 2019).
The Film

In 1978, while demolishing the Dawson Amateur Athletics Association recreation center to build a new one, backhoes unearthed metal boxes, film cannisters, and loose rolls of film what was once a swimming pool long ago converted into a hockey and curling ice rink. Klondike National Historic Sites Curator of Collections' Michael Gates' on-site examination of some of the material revealed not only dangerously volatile nitrate film that nevertheless potentially consisted of a number of long lost American silent films; Dawson City having been the "end of the line" with Hollywood unwilling to pay return service on outdated films (some of the films having premiered in Dawson City two to three years after being seen elsewhere). Coordinating with the Dawson City Musuem's Kathy Jones (later Kathy Jones-Gates) and archivist Sam Kula, the excavation, storage, archiving, printing, and later digitizing of five-hundred-and-thirty-three reels rescued from a permafrost preservation of fifty years would come to be known as the Dawson Film Find. Although this project made waves in certain circles at the time, a lot of this material was more discussed than actually seen even though it was accessible. It was "visible but unviewed," as described by documentary filmmaker Bill Morrison when the opportunity to screen his student film Decasia in Ottowa at the 2013 Lost Dominion Screening Collective came with the invitation to look at the material from programmer/Motion Picture Conservator for Library and Archives Canada Paul Gordon. Among his "discoveries" was a reel of previously unseen newsreel footage of the 1919 World Series and the Black Sox Scandal. The clip was posted on the archives' YouTube channel and the resulting number of views and its notoriety the feature opens with a clip from Morrison's interview on a sports show spurred Morrison's imagination of constructing a project utilizing the films themselves to tell the story of how they came to be buried in the first place. Dawson City: Frozen Time is more than that; it is the story of how the Gold Rush built and destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed (sometimes with the help of nitrate film explosions) and rebuilt Dawson City as well as how the Gold Rush brought cinema to the city as one of the many divertissements intended to keep prospectors spending money. It is the story of cinema, from the stylistic evolutions in entertainment to the various future Hollywood personalities who came to the Yukon territory as vendors, office workers, and entertainers who were bitten by the fame bug from silent film director William Desmond Taylor to newshawker-turned-showman Sid Grauman and vaudeville performer-turned-producer Alex Pantages and how the sometimes scandalous accounts of their Hollywood experience consumed by the general public in the rest of the country came back to the Yukon in the same manner of "local boy makes good" news stories. Morrison mixes the found footage with other archival material including home movies, previously preserved news reels, and even cinematic and documentary reenactments augmented by captions, music, and sound effects to tell a story in which one is not entirely sure whether the Dawson Film Find materials or the other footage is meant to fill in the gaps of the other. There are plenty of subjects briefly covered that seem to have nothing to do with the Dawson City, its people, or the Gold Rush but they not only offer tantalizing looks at the range of materials recovered; they also show the ways in which motion pictures, newsreels, and educational films were the only access to and depictions of the outside world to many of the locals. Even the portions of the film depiction the period of time after that encompassed by the recovered films illustrated with more contemporary archival materials compelling conveys how the films came to be landfill and even partially resurfaced (literally on the surface) intermittently before the chain of events that lead to the discovery of something that was not accessible but also not entirely unkown or forgotten.


Previously released in the United States by Kino Lorber, Second Run's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC transfer is derived from the same digital master, with variable quality to the restored/rescued silent nitrate films and better if not always perfect quality for the later archival film used to illustrate the story from the twentites onwards. The bulk of the film is pillarboxed at 1.33:1 while the bookening video segments open up to 1.78:1.


Audio is available in a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 option and a perfectly serviceable LPCM 2.0 Stereo mix. The bookening segments have spoken dialogue while the bulk of the program is silent film with captions as well as scoring and added sound effects which stray to the surrounds but with little directionality. Optional English SDH subtitles transcribe the spoken bits and caption certain sound effects but this must have been a very easy track to create.


The extras package is virtually identical to the Kino release bar a different, longer Interview with Bill Morrison (21:45) in which he goes into detail about gaining access to the collection, discovering the Black Sox Scandal footage, and conceiving the film and the 2018 short film "The Letter" (12:32) which too utilizes footage from several recovered films to tell a single narrative. Carried over is "Dawson City: Postscript" (9:55) in which Gates and Gates-Jones recall the challenge of storing the nitrate material as it was dug up, trying to arrange for someone to transport the hazardous material, its cleaning and stabilizing, archiving (along with one or two nitrate explosions), and the whereabouts of various parts of the collection today. Also included are a selection of Original Dawson City Film Reels: British Canadian Pathe News 81A, 1919 (12:24), International News Vol. 1 - Issue 52, 1919 (11:12), The Montreal Herald Screen Magazine, 1919 (12:26), Pathe's Weekly #17, 1914 (8:59), The Butler and the Maid Thomas A. Edison, Inc., 1912 (2:51), Brutality D.W. Griffith, Biograph Company, 1912 (10:26), The Exquisite Thief Tod Browning, Universal Film Manufacturing Company Inc., 1919 (8:21), and The Girl of the Northern Woods Thanhouser, 1910 (6:22). Do note that the reels generally run longer than same ones on the Kino release because they have been speed-corrected here while the Kino ones run at 24fps (only the International News reel is speed-corrected on the Kino). The disc also includes the film's trailer (2:11). The Kino release had a booklet by Lawrence Weschler and Alberto Zambenedetti while the Second Run includes a 24-page booklet with writing on the film by Kristin Thompson and a new essay by curator Gareth Evans.


Weaving a story through disparate pieces of archived and rescued footage that might ahve been forever lost, Dawson City: Frozen Time is the story of the Gold Rush, the rise and fall and rise of a city, its people, and part of the story of cinema itself.


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