Now Playing! 'Dawson City' Breaks a Century of Silence

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First Avenue in Dawson City, circa 1898.  (Courtesy Vancouver Public Library)

The last time Bill Morrison’s delicate, mesmerizing excavations of silent movies graced a local screen, the Kronos Quartet provided live accompaniment. Those fortunate enough to catch that wrenching presentation of unseen and essentially lost World War I footage (Beyond Zero: 1914–1918, shown at the 2015 S.F. International Film Festival) were transported to a faraway world.

One of the many reels of the Dawson City Collection recovered in 1978.
One of the many reels of the Dawson City Collection recovered in 1978. (Courtesy Kathy Jones Gates)

Morrison pulls off a similar trick with his latest reverential journey into cinema’s bewitching past. Dawson City: Frozen Time debuted last fall at the Venice and New York film festivals and arrives July 14 at the Roxie for a week. It draws on hundreds of reels of silent 35mm film from the 1910s and 1920s that made their final theatrical stop in Dawson City, in the Yukon Territory, before being shelved and eventually buried -- and were unexpectedly unearthed and rediscovered, frozen and largely preserved, in the late 1970s. Dawson City’s Gold Rush-fueled boom and bust comprises a fascinating segment of the documentary, but Morrison is most in thrall to the celluloid vestiges flickering at us from a century ago.

Movies are time capsules, in every sense of the phrase. If you’re of a temperament or in a mood to contemplate the lives and mores of those who preceded us on this mortal coil, Dawson City: Frozen in Time is a true treat. If you find yourself mulling what strangers a century from now will make of your digital archive of selfies, so much the better.

'Dawson City: Frozen Time' screens July 14–20 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Details here.