John Seven | Viewer's Discretion: Documentary tells story of town, lost films

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Bill Morrison is an experimental filmmaker who often works with damaged silent film. In 2003 he created his masterwork, the mesmerizing "Decasia," a collage of decomposing footage, much of which was unidentified, accompanied by a score by Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon. One profound triumph on that level is all anyone could ask in their creative career, but Morrison has gone and surpassed himself with "Dawson City: Frozen Time," best described as an experimental documentary.

The story behind the film is simple. In 1978 in Dawson City, Canada, which is located in the Yukon, 533 silent film reels were unearthed during construction work. The pile included numerous films previously thought to be permanently lost, as well as news footage of different historical events, notably the legendary 1919 World Series at the center of the Black Sox scandal. Morrison uses footage from these films, and a few other silent-era films, in order to construct something very special.

The film is not exactly the narrative of these lost films, though it is sort of. The story of the film is part of what Morrison sets out to tell. It's largely the story of Dawson City itself, from its earliest settlers through all its developments as a community. It's also about the early history of the film business, how distribution practices worked and how films were shown. And of course, it's about the films, too — what they show us, what film means to us, what the materials are that film is made from and what they mean and also how the information they hold both captures the truth and creates myths.

Morrison's work here is a triumph of editing, creating an orderly swirl that becomes a dialogue, with the film telling the city's story and city telling the film's story, ultimately revealing how linked our own history, culture and memories are to film. It's a profound meditation on our past and our present does its work in unconventional ways.

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While so many shows about investigators of the paranormal feature very serious heroes, who take all the Devil and demon stuff in such a grim way, "Midwinter of the Spirit" is immediately refreshing for offering one who gets into the business with a "sure, why not" attitude. That's provided by the always wonderful Anna Maxwell Martin as Merrily Watkins, a Church of England vicar who gets trained as an exorcist, but who her instructor, Huw Owens (David Threlfall) worries isn't quite prepared.

She does have a lot on her mind, to be sure — recently widowed, she's trying to deal with her daughter, Jane (Sally Messham), and the issues between them because of the death that's affected them in different ways. That causes enough pressure when trying to interact with an unhinged, reclusive man she's replacing Canon Dobbs (David Sterne), and is approached by a social worker concerned about one of his troubled clients, who just happens to also be Jane's new friend. And then there's the death bed absolution of a dying man who appears to be evil and the desecration of a church altar.

"Midwinter of the Spirit" brings all of it and more together, setting up a wider backdrop for the characters to exist in, but consistently keeping it focused on Merrily as a focal point through which all the drama and horror swirls around. Martin makes a charming exorcist and my one complaint is that there are only three episodes. It's based on a series of books by Paul Rickman and I hope that means there's more of Merrily in the future.

John Seven is a writer in North Adams who has never been satisfied by movies and television that are easy to come by. He likes to do some digging. Find him online at


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