An Interview With Bill Morrison

| June 9, 2017

In the town of Hoppegarten just east of Berlin there is a bunker. The facility is kept cooled to 6 degrees Celsius and contains a row of 40 small rooms separated from one another by steel doors. This bunker, located next to the Stasi’s old encryption headquarters, is not a facility for protecting military personnel, but rather film canisters.

The Federal Archives of Germany house some of the rarest masterpieces of cinema including the first films of the Skladanowsky brothers and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Of course preservation is the top priority for archivists, but the location for these films was also chosen as a means to protect the public. From 1890 and even into the 1950’s many films were shot on nitrocellulose, an agent whose explosive force exceeds that of gun powder. Uniquely the substance does not need oxygen to burn, and can simply ignite from impact or temperature change. In the early days of cinema it was actually a risk to sit and watch a film. The first theater fire occurred at the Paris World’s Fair in 1897 where 140 audience members died.

The history of cinema and its sometimes dangerous role as cultural influencer is the subject of director Bill Morrison’s fascinating new documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time.

The story centers around a town called Dawson City located about 173 miles south of the Arctic Circle in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Historically the area was an important hunting and fishing camp for the nomadic First Nation tribe known as Trondëk Hwëchin, but with the discovery of gold in 1896 the area became the center of the Klondike Gold Rush and boomed to a population of 40,000.

In 1902 the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association opened and began showing films. Soon the city became the final stop for a distribution chain that sent prints and newsreels to the Yukon. The films were seldom if ever returned, and instead were stored in a library before being disposed of in a defunct swimming pool.

Then in 1978 a bulldozer clearing ground for a new recreation center dug up a trove of long-forgotten film canisters. A collection of 533 reels of nitrate film (representing 372 titles) dating from the 1910s to 1920s were discovered, and now reside in the Canadian Archives in Ottawa and at the U.S. Library of Congress.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Morrison about the origins of the project, and how the discovery of these film canisters serves as a metaphor for Western cultural and political influence.

MV: This is really an extraordinary story, and I’m wondering how were you introduced to the Dawson City collection?

BM: It was around the late 1980s or early 1990s when I was still in art school. Now this had been a story circulating amongst people who were interested in archival film and it was like can you believe this? Some films were found in a swimming pool in the Yukon. I mean why is there even a swimming pool in the Yukon? I ended up learning a little bit more about it from an essay that Sam Kula wrote in a book called “This Film is Dangerous,” but really that was it. It wasn’t until I was invited to show some of my films at a program in Ottawa called Lost Dominion that things began to take shape. There was a programmer there named Paul Gordon whose day job was in digital migration at Library and Archives Canada. We got to talking and he said you should come by and see what we’re working on. I said wait, don’t you guys have the Dawson City collection? He said not only that, but we’re getting a new 4K scanner to use on the pieces. Well, I realized the moment had found me and it was from there that I began developing the project .

MV: I’m also curious how the narrative took shape? The fact of these films being preserved in permafrost all these decades is incredible in itself, but rather than simply stopping at that story you instead show this correlation between how creation and destruction function in a variety of human industries. Did the story develop as you were viewing the material, or were there themes you were interested in exploring and this collection provided the perfect opportunity?

BM: The project definitely started out smaller. I thought I could just tell the story of how the films came to be buried and uncovered and that would be that. But as time went on the question arose of well what is this town? How did it develop, and why is it so remote? Both ends of the century had to be fleshed out, and it wasn’t too long before I realized I was making a much more extensive and dense film.

MV: With 533 reels of film it’s obviously quite a feat to select and edit down the collection to be represented in the movie, and I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about that process. How did you go about organizing and selecting the clips you did?

BM: It was certainly an intimidating prospect to begin with. Luckily there’s a fairly extensive database compiled by Library and Archives Canada that lists all of the titles and provides some description. I just started searching for words that fit with the narrative I wanted to tell; swimming pool, gold, film, etc. I became really drawn to the newsreel footage, and pretty early on I said I want to see all the newsreel footage. It was fascinating to witness how world events mirrored the construction of this town. Ultimately Dawson City became a microcosm for the West’s development in the 20th century, and from there bigger themes started to emerge such as corporatization, mechanization, and labor.

MV: One of the more fascinating moments in the film is when you discuss the Black Sox scandal of 1919 and how that event ties in with the larger story of labor in the early 20th century. What really compelled me was how from the discovery of this collection you were able to investigate a number of issues including globalization, the exploitation of native cultures and the powers of myth and cinema. I’m wondering if there are certain themes you see yourself drawn to more than others? Does a story have to possess something in particular for you to pursue it?

BM: Well, the films themselves were the divining rod. Not only could they be the subject of the story, but they could also be the way the audience witnessed the story unfolding. You see film has a complex relationship with our world. It initially came out of a material used for explosives, and then became a material for entertainment. It was also a colonizing tool as it helped spread Western civilization to all corners of the globe. So there’s this relationship between film and how it not only reflects humanity but influences it. I’d say we’re very much cinema people, and we think and dream differently because of the presence of film in our lives. On a social level I’ve been drawn to stories about labor the last few projects, and the role cinema at least used to have in representing labor and anarchy. A news program today featuring an anarchist like Alexander Berkman standing below Rockefeller’s office in Union Square railing against corporate America would almost never be shown, and I’m fascinated by the evolution in how we perceive such movements.

MV: It’s fascinating just how influential cinema is in shaping the culture and the mythologies of our society. It’s much more than entertainment. It shapes your world views, and in many ways it builds societies through its narrative powers.

BM: Certainly Dawson City embodies this mythology as it was portrayed through cinema. It was the subject of numerous early newsreels and there’s an Edison film from 1901 called Poker in Dawson City. So through Eric Hegg’s photographs and these early Edison films it’s already cultivating this wild portrait of itself that it must live up to. It’s continually referring to itself through its cinematic image.

But getting back to the Black Sox question, I wanted to include that material because it occurred to me that this was a labor story. Not only did the players lack a union, but they were essentially indentured servants. They were owned by their individual teams and weren’t able to negotiate with other teams until they were let go. So that was a unique situation, and of course I’m not exonerating anyone who took pay to lose a game, but you can understand how the influence of gamblers was prevalent during that time. It was a revelation to discover that this footage existed. I think there were a few snippets here and there, but to find five minutes of 35mm footage of this World Series was astounding, and really it becomes a metaphor for the entire film. I mean this is an eight game series and this news segment is going to exist with several others on the same reel. So the fact that the fourth inning of game one, which was one of the most suspicious innings of the scandal, was covered in enough detail that you could see one of the plays in question, and then that play made it into the edit of the eight game series, and that one of these prints made it to Dawson City and was saved in a library for a couple of years before being buried in a swimming pool for fifty is just incredible. So besides its role in the labor story, the incident becomes a metaphor for time as well.

MV: Yes, I think you certainly present a compelling portrait of how things develop and relate to each other through time.

BM: I think a portrait of our country emerges from the film, and helps us to understand who we are in a certain way, and how we got to where we currently are. It’s no coincidence that Fred Trump was running a brothel in Dawson City during this time and now we’re beholden to the corporate autocracy of his grandson.

MV: In this film, and in much of your previous work, music plays an important part and you’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with some amazing musicians including Alex Sommers for this project. Can you talk a little bit about what you wanted the music to accomplish in this piece?

BM: This was done in a more traditional relationship between a director and a composer in that there was a rough cut and Alex went about composing cues which is generally how most directors work. My career’s been different in that I’ve often worked alongside a composer and typically the music is finished before the film is. This was different in that Alex and Jónsi Birgisson (Sigur Rós) wrote 22 minutes of music for this film and that really informed things. I used it as a scratch track along with their 2009 release Riceboy Sleeps, and that became very informative for me about the timing, mood and malleability of the image. There wasn’t a single heartbeat in the music so everything sort of flowed through the different stories. When I finally had a rough cut after a couple of years, Alex suggested we bring in his brother John who is a sound designer. We talked about sound design as a type of musique concrète where sounds that were suggested by images in the scenes could be used as music. The two brothers worked very closely to develop that, with John tuning his sounds to Alex’s music. He also developed programs that would watch frames so that noise could be regulated to actually correspond to the amount of decay or the number of white pixels on the frame, which I thought was a brilliant. We got the right vibe and it’s still a joy for me to hear it, especially in a big theater. It was wonderful working with those guys.

MV: You mentioned that you started out in painting and then transitioned into filmmaking. I’m wondering what initially attracted you to cinema? Were you always interested in some kind of storytelling, and what made you feel cinema was the appropriate medium to bring some of your visions to life?

BM: I always thought of myself as a formal artist before ever thinking of myself as a writer. My paintings were figurative so they were stories in a certain way. But my film teacher was Robert Breer at the Cooper Union and he taught a model of filmmaking that was based on compiling twenty four paintings every second. So that was my transition. If I go to a museum and stand in front of a piece for two minutes that’s a pretty long haul to be taking in a painting. Whereas with film you have people’s undivided attention for the most part, and you can control what they hear and their associations much more. Comparing the way of exhibiting painting to the way of exhibiting film I thought film was a more immersive experience. It’s strange but I was never able to make abstract paintings, and until now I haven’t really been able to make narrative films.

MV: One of the things I feel that you’re really focusing on in this project is the idea of technology and how we use it. There are these incredible resources we are able to extract from the Earth and use to our benefit, but often we sacrifice longevity for convenience and cost. Even though a safety film was developed in 1910 we continued to use nitrate film because it was cheaper to make, despite the incredible loss of life, property, and historical records. You’re somebody who I think is so thoughtful in using art and technology to explore and preserve the histories of our societies, and I’m wondering if there’s something you are constantly striving to accomplish with your own art?

BM: If you take the body of my work together you’ll see there’s a lot of things in common. A lot of it starts with this idea that film is the embodiment of social memory; things that we’ve forgotten or didn’t think we knew that are still buried there. I think of myself as some kind of synapse that brings things into modern day consciousness. I think that’s true for all of my work. Dawson City was a perfect project for me because it combined a lot of my interests; my formal interest in films as material, but also the labor, technological, environmental and economic issues. It was a project that was a culmination of many films I had already made. In a way this was my perfect project. I don’t know how many more of these come along for a person. This is my Titanic in a way, except hopefully this won’t sink as its already risen from the dead. Hopefully it’s preserved in a way where people can always find it.

Dawson City: Frozen Time is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.

About the Author:

Matthew Vasiliauskas is a graduate of Columbia University. His work has appeared in publications such as Conjunctions, Berlin’s Sand Literary Journal, Chicago Literati and The Pennsylvania Review. Matthew currently lives and works in Los Angeles.
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