‘Saving Brinton’ is one of those magical gems that comes along every once in a while, a slow-burning delight that starts with an individual, the kind of guy we might have been lucky enough to encounter in our travels – a genuine, decent guy who often goes unnoticed in the let’s-make-a-deal cities – and then opens out to show how he tweaks the orbit of the planets, just a tiny glorious bit.
Michael Zahs is working his farm when we first see him, in Ainseworth Iowa. In his friendly, leisurely way, he establishes how he came by the Brinton films. William and Indiana Brinton had traveled around Iowa running projection shows (magic lantern slides, early movies and even a prototype flying machine that neglected to fly) in the 1890’s through 1911. When they died, their films went from their executor, who stowed them in the basement, to his executor to Zahs, who put them in a shed alongside his home and showed some of them every year in local shows around the area for thirty years, vainly trying to get someone to pay attention, until finally the University of Iowa recognized what he had.
What he had (film-lovers, prepare to gasp) were at least two Georges Melies films that were thought lost, several hand-tinted early color films in better shape than any the Library of Congress had previously seen, early footage of a train crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, Teddy Roosevelt riding in a parade and a Middle East market. Amazing stuff. Here’s a link to the film page, which will be updated as more films are digitized.
There’s a scene where the Library of Congress’s french film expert watches one of the Melies and exclaims ‘You want to see me faint?’
In the meantime, Michael plants his fields, buries his mother, gives history demonstrations that aren’t boring (!) to Iowa schoolchildren and a humorous presentation on cemeteries (!) to an assemblage of Iowa Amish, who trusted him enough to agree to be filmed. By the time you see it, that he’s earned their trust is not a surprise–as wonderful as the films he’s saved are, much of the film’s joy and grace comes from the opportunity it gives us to know the man.
Here’s the website again. But just go see this movie–you’ll leave with a really stupid smile plastered across your face, which is something we all need these days.
And if you live in Manhattan and can make it, go TODAY (May 18th 2018) to Cinema Village on 12th Street – the filmmakers and Michael are there all day to answer questions in their very gracious and charming way. Support good people doing good things – how many chances do you get?