“I like saving things, especially if they seem too far gone.” The first time we meet Michael Zahs in Saving Brinton, he’s wandering around his Washington County, Iowa home. Pointing out peach trees that are almost two centuries old, marveling at the ruins of a steeple on his property. Zahs shows us his keen eye & appreciation for history. He also gestures to the stray animals he’s taken in. His actions reveal the truth of his words: he loves saving far gone things. And what could be more far gone than our vanishing film history?
Tommy Haines & Andrew Sherburne hit the documentary jackpot with Saving Brinton’s subject. Michael Zahs is a true original: a passionate archivist with an encyclopedic knowledge of old silent movies, magic lanterns, and Iowan lore. A burly bearded man prone to wearing American Gothic ties, he’s genial, sharp, and a pillar of his rural community. His existence is a sharp rebuke to people who believe that culture in America can only flourish on the coasts: as he remarks throughout the film, he’s following in the footsteps of pioneers like Frank Brinton who brought cinema to the heartlands.
The film’s titular name belongs to Frank and Indiana Brinton, a couple who owned a priceless cache of silent cinema reels. Brinton was a kind of P.T. Barnum for the cinematheque. He held exhibitions where he showed off his dissolving projector, wowing audiences with magic lantern slideshows. Brinton also showed off films by some of the great pioneers of early cinema: Edison, the Lumiere Brothers, and the cinema’s first magic man: Georges Melies. The traveling film exhibitionist was also obsessed with aviation and caused riots in towns when his elaborate airships couldn’t slip the surly bonds of Earth.
The Brinton’s storehouse of films, projection equipment, and ephemera came into Zahs’ possession when the Brinton family’s executor died in 1981. Zahs took it upon himself to rescue this huge piece of early film history, storing the films in his shed. “I didn’t create anything, but sometimes people have good sheds,” Zahs says with a twinkle in his eye.
He’s being too modest, though. While Zahs isn’t a creator himself, the film lays out how important his efforts have been. He’s single-handedly preserved films that were long thought to be lost. We see Zahs interacting with film preservationists and scholars at film festivals who are amazed at the films he has in his possession, including gorgeous hand-tinted Melies shorts. The degree to which Zahs is known in the archival film world is made clear when he reveals that Martin Scorsese tried reaching out to him at one point.
Aside from Zahs himself, the film’s MVP is cinematographer John Richard. His shots of Iowa in the throes of winter are stunning; his shots of coal-black cows trudging over fields of alabaster snow are just as beautiful as the archival clips of Melies’ films that pop up throughout the movie. He also captures the Land-That-Time-Forgot quality of Washington County: rows of tractors driving in the middle of town; Mennonites at a pie social, gathering to hear Zahs talk; the rustic “opera house” where Zahs tries to recreate the traveling show that Brinton used to do.
What gives Saving Brinton its heart is watching one man work doggedly, without complaint, to save history. Zahs is the kind of person who truly thinks globally and acts locally; while his efforts are preserving these films for the worldwide film community, he focuses on promoting and sharing this history with the folks of Washington County. Why should New Yorkers, Parisians, and cinephiles in California get to have all the good shit?