- A Deal with the DevilBill Morrison on Dawson City: Frozen Time
Bill Morrison, who has created some of the most visually engaging and intellectually provocative documentary films of our day, is also a filmmaker intimately associated with archives. Often, he has been drawn to the rarest, most obscure, and most physically distressed artifacts to be found. Probably he is known best for Decasia (2002), selected for the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 2013. It is an enthralling assembly of scenes in varying stages of nitrate decomposition, set to a sound track by Michael Gordon. He was visiting Bologna, Italy, and the Cinema Ritrovato festival to screen his most recent work, Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), a complex film that ostensibly is about the 1978 Dawson City discovery of hundreds of reels of discarded motion pictures but also about the people who found the “found footage,” the native peoples displaced by the Gold Rush, and even more broadly, a meditation on how these preserved movies also preserve the history of American capitalism. The interview, slightly edited, was recorded on June 26, 2017.
They’re working you like a dog here at the festival! You’re introducing films, screening your own work, curating. How are you holding up?
I’m loving it! First of all, I flew in on an early flight and didn’t sleep. I was seated next to Dave Kehr [curator of film, Museum of Modern Art], and we watched Bertrand Tavernier’s A Journey through French Cinema  side by side and talked about it. I feel like the festival really began before I landed. Then they lost our bags and I had to go right into an introduction to The Closed Road [Maurice Tourneur, 1916], which Kevin Brownlow was presenting. That was a film from the Dawson City collection. And then, the rest of the afternoon. . . . I really [End Page 92] find film-watching a great way to overcome jet lag because you can basically fool your body into thinking it’s awake, even when it sometimes isn’t. In that manner, you can make it to a proper bedtime and adjust to being in Europe.
I want to focus on Dawson City: Frozen Time because it strikes me that of all your movies, so many of which are of profound interest to the readers of The Moving Image, this one especially deals with archives and archivists, as well as the nonprofessionals who are dedicated to saving and preserving film—doing good and sometimes doing inadvertent harm.
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Yeah. Doing inadvertent good, even.
In my first viewing of the film, I thought, here is something essentially different from Decasia. It has more of a wide-ranging message, if one can talk about messages in an abstract film. I see Decasia mainly as a meditation on the decay of [End Page 93] film material more than the clichés about death and mortality, the interpretations that the critics wrote about when that film came out.
Well, they’ve become clichés.
Yes, good point. Dawson City, though, has so many things going on in the ways that the footage is edited and the scenes are juxtaposed. It begins as a kind of classic or standard documentary, with interviews, maps, zoom-ins on maps and photographs, but then it goes into imagery more characteristic of your other work: montages of decaying images from melodramas, comedies, documentaries, and newsreels. There are a lot of themes that emerge, like the association between capitalism and film’s explosive nature—in every sense of the word. Cinema is chemically explosive and socially explosive, as when it documents strikes, movie star scandals, and such. There is a motif of fire that runs throughout the film . . .
There also is commentary on colonialism, and what it means to be Canadian, and Canadianism. There are the references to hockey that recur throughout the film (chuckles). The film just strikes me as...