Bill Morrison uses antique, disintegrating film as a foundation for his award-winning work. Focusing on the fragility and organic beauty of highly unstable nitrate film stock as it decomposes, Morrison creates uniquely lovely works that combine lessons in history with meditations on going the way of all things, accompanied by contemporary scores by artists such as Jóhann Jóhannsson, Dave Douglas, and Bill Frisell.
Morrison's latest film, Dawson City: Frozen Time, tells the story of a 19th century gold rush in a small Canadian mining town through film images that were once thought lost forever—until they were found in the late 1970s, in a cache of over 1000 film reels buried under a layer of permafrost below the town's abandoned ice hockey rink. In advance of the film's exclusive Columbus engagement at the Wex July 21-22 at 7 p.m., Bill, a past Wex visiting filmmaker, connected with Film/Video Director David Filipi to share a little more about it.
The story of the Dawson City cache is so romantic, almost mythic. Did you have a sense that the story would inform the structure of the film or did it reveal itself as you went through the footage?
I understood that the film would be both a history of cinema, and a history of Western civilization in the 20th century, as seen through the specific history of Dawson City. The premise of the film going in was to tell the story of this film find using the contents of the discovery, along with other supporting archival material, to make a silent film about a silent film collection. I didn’t know what I would find, but I felt there was probably enough material there to do it.
I also knew I had to tell the history of the Klondike Gold Rush if audiences were to understand how the town of Dawson City came to be a singularly remote location that was heavily invested in entertainment. The fact that gold was discovered in the Klondike the same year that commercial cinema was established meant that I had a starting point for both subjects from which events could more or less unfold chronologically.
There were many twists the film took in response to what I found. The 1919 World Series footage was of course an imporant find in the collection, but it only found a place in the film as part of a larger narrative about labor. The use of Eric Hegg’s photographs is an essential visual record of the Gold Rush, but the story of how his glass plate negatives were uncovered in a cabin outside of Dawson was one of my film’s key discoveries that echos the film find. I found imagery, people and themes that recurred, and built the film around them as they resurfaced in time.
Probably the element that has been discussed the most is the discovery of the footage from both the 1917 and the notorious 1919 World Series. Beyond the obvious, it strikes me what a special find the baseball footage represents. First, we know the footage existed at some point. World Series were covered by multiple film companies making the utter lack of footage both telling and devastating as it relates to the loss of early film. Second, not only do we have pretty good documentation of nearly all 20th century games, these games were played in the World Series and they were incredibly well documented. So, when a contemporary viewer gets his or her hands on the footage there is a historical record for comparison. We can tell a lot about it even though the game footage is shot from a distance. It’s an amazing nexus of factors and it wouldn’t necessarily be true of another historical event. And that it happens to be the most notorious series in history...incredible. When did it sink in?
It is incredible, and that story is only one example of what is true for every reel in this collection. I knew right away what it was and that probably no one else knew that it was there. The 35mm reference prints of the Dawson City Collection at Library and Archives Canada were in absolutely pristine condition – clearly not a lot of folks had been coming up there to view them over the years, and they hadn’t yet been digitized. As a lifelong White Sox fan, I was thrilled to find both the 1917 World Series (which the Sox won) and 1919 World Series represented in the collection. “White Sox” was one of the first things I searched for. But, in addition to the labor implications mentioned above, the footage also serves as a way to distill the unbelievable role chance plays in this entire story, for the whole collection.
It is firstly remarkable that a camera caught the same play in the fourth inning of Game 1 that was a year later used as testimony in the indictment of the players. That film was not submitted as evidence at the time. It is also curious that an otherwise unremarkable play (a single hit, and a failed double play attempt) was deemed important enough ito make it into the newsreel edit that was intended to represent an entire eight-game World Series. That a copy of this newsreel, containing four other completely unrelated stories, found its way to the Yukon, probably years after the scandal broke, is astounding. And then that that same reel was stored in a library basement, and not thrown in the river or otherwise disposed of, and then that it was buried in a defunct swimming pool, under a theater that would itself burn down in a nitrate fire on top of the very ground where this reel was buried is amazing. And there it rested for 49 years, while all other known copies of the same reel perished, before it was recovered in 1978 and shipped to Ottawa, where it was then restored, catalogued, copied to safety film, and archived in a vault. The fact that it sat in this vault for another 36 years before I came along and typed the words “White Sox” into their database (in 2014) is probably the least remarkable part of the film’s journey, and that was only possible because the reel had been thoroughly catalogued and archived by LAC.
When I showed the film to archivist Paul Gordon at Library and Archives Canada, we were both keen to tell the world what we had found. Paul uploaded it to YouTube on the LAC account, and I alerted (you because you) curate a rare baseball films program every year. In an article about that program, Terry Mikesell of the Columbus Dispatch first wrote about the newly discovered 1919 World Series footage. The story was later picked up by other journalists as well. A few weeks later I was doing 4-5 interviews a day about the “baseball film” I was making. But to my mind it is just as incredible and more ironic that a newsreel of Alice Guy Blaché’s Solax Film Factory on fire survived—a newsreel chapter that had an equallly circuitous route to reach Dawson City, and was buried in the the same frozen ground while, for one evening in December 1937, a movie theater engulfed in the flames of the films that arrived after it raged above ground, over it. Yet it was safely frozen.
Could you talk about the music for this film? Though you rely on older, often deteriorated, film footage, your scores are always utterly contemporary. How do gather your ideas for a score or how are conversations with the composer shaped?
In this case I was looking for an epic, ethereal, Northern-feeling score, and I thought of the band Sigur Rós. Alex Somers and Jonsí made a few scratch tracks that really informed my edit. The film became much dreamier and fluid as a response to their music. When I finally had a rough cut in Spring of 2016, I sent that to Alex and he sent me back a first draft of the soundtrack. From there I made a detailed log of what I liked and didn’t like, and we went through the entire film referring to those notes. I remember I really had to write down what the film meant to me at that time—that I viewed it as a tragedy, and that I needed to hear more strings, more cello. Then he wrote more music, hired more musicians, and booked another recording session. We went back and forth a few more times before we both found the film score we were looking for.
It was a really rewarding experience working with Alex, and also his brother John Somers, who did the sound design. Alex suggested John, and Alex and I talked about how the sound should behave like another element of the score. We imagined a musique concrete soundscape where sounds that were implied by a scene could become the notes in a grand sound composition that was attuned to the music. John also had the idea of writing a program to “watch” the film for decay or water damage, and then feed that data into the soundscape, so that you hear noise that is a direct aural translation of the decay on the frame.
(Photo: Bill Morrison during a 2012 visit to the Wexner Center's projection booth, shot by Blair Perry)