Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time and The Great Flood screen at the 19th British Silent Film Festival
Archive silent film is rarely perfect. Age weathers all things, but especially nitrate film stock, which decomposes and distorts in the most alarming way. Watching a damaged print, you will likely see sections of the frame swallowed up by black or grey blooms, figures twisted, pock-marks raining across the image.
Experimental film-maker Bill Morrison has made a career out of savouring the beauty in these warped and wrecked reels. His work takes archive film and turns it into not just a history lesson, but a work of art in its own right. You may already be familiar with his haunting 2002 feature, Decasia, a collage of film footage haunted by the shadows and spectres of nitrate decay. We all fervently wish the damage weren’t there, of course, but we can also be awed by it.
His latest film, Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), exploits this beautiful decay once again, but it also has a fascinating story to tell about a massive cache of silent films, 533 nitrate prints in total, discovered in the Yukon in 1978. Morrison’s film explains how so many films ended up in a library basement in Gold Rush country to begin with, and how they were uncovered, after being stored underneath a hockey rink for years, literally trapped under ice. It’s a wide-roaming story, which touches on the anything-goes decadence of the Yukon in the Gold Rush years, the emergence of cinema as a popular art form, deadly fires, Donald Trump’s family tree, and one of the most notorious sports scandals of all time, baseball’s 1919 “Black Sox” World Series.
Morrison tells his tale using the imagery from the reels unearthed in Dawson City, nitrate decomposition and all, with narration, and a hypnotic score by Alex Somers. We’re delighted to be showing Dawson City: Frozen Time at the 19th British Silent Film Festival on Friday 15 September, and we are following it up with another of Morrison’s films, The Great Flood (2013).
The Great Flood is another trip into the archives, telling a story of water rather than ice; the Deep South, rather than the frozen north. In 1927, the Mississippi river broke its banks in 145 places, flooding 27,000 square miles of the South, displacing vast numbers of black Americans. In what became known as The Great Migration, around five million people moved from the rural south to the industrial cities of the north, and they took their musical traditions with them.
Morrison’s feature uses material that has been stored in American archives to tell the story of the flood and the people forced out by it – here the clouds of nitrate damage seem to echo the pools and eddies of water that spread across the southern plains. The Great Flood is also a collaboration with composer Bill Frisell, whose score for these incredible images draws on the tunes of the South, the roots music that became the basis for R&B, rock and jazz when these displaced workers moved to the cities.
Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016) & The Great Flood (2012) screen on Friday 15 September 2017 at the Phoenix Leicester as part of the 19th British Silent Film Festival. You can buy tickets for the festival here.