The best films invite the audience into their world, to familiarize themselves with, not just the people, but also the setting and how it factors into the story at hand. The filmmakers let the viewer feel as if they’ve participated in the story. A passive movie simply films the action onscreen without giving the audience a reason to care; things happen, but there is no investment. This is equally true if the movie is a fantasy, a drama, a comedy, or a documentary. The documentary Saving Brinton goes beyond letting the audience in. It is the cinematic equivalent of being led to a cozy spot by the fireplace with your feet propped up on the ottoman for a massage.
Directed by Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherburne, who co-wrote the movie with John Richard, Saving Brinton follows Michael Zahs and his quest to showcase and preserve a considerable collection of film reels he randomly happened upon. In 1981, Zahs was clearing out his neighbor’s basement when he discovered a bunch of items all belonging to the Brinton family.
William Franklin Brinton and his wife, were well off Washington, Iowa residents near the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th. Brinton was a technological innovator of his time and was one of the earliest adopters of the dissolving slide projector; a precursor of sorts to a film reel projector. The Brintons would take their collection on the road, not just in Iowa, but the world over; including such cultural hotspots (especially at the time) like Paris, France.
The films they gathered include short films by the Pathé entertainment company, rare news footage, and two long-lost Georges Méilès titles- The Wonderful Rose-Tree and The Triple-Headed Lady. There are thousands of pieces, not all films. There are show posters, playbills, the dissolving slide projector the Brintons used to entertain, and so much more.
“…was a technological innovator of his time and was one of the earliest adopters of the dissolving slide projector…”
Zahs realizes the importance of what he found and is now researching avenues to help preserve the Brinton collection of early film reels, as well as touring them around Iowa. In his tour, Zahs attempts to replicate the show to be as close as possible to how Brinton would have hosted it. This includes live music accompaniment, as well as setting the stage for the images and movies to come.
Helping Zahs along is Serge Bromberg, a prominent film collector, preservationist, with a heavy emphasis on early cinema, and producer (through his company Lobster Films). Bromberg is impressed by the amount that Zahs has at his disposal and points him towards ways of gaining more, as well as advising on how to get the current prints restored. Eventually, this captures the eye of the University of Iowa and the Library of Congress.
Meanwhile, a renovation project at the old opera house in Washington, Iowa is underway. Once it reopens, it will hold the distinction of being the longest running, continuously operated movie theater in the entire United States of America. Zahs’s dream for the collection is to play it there; to see the Brinton Collection on the marquee.
Michael Zahs is a nice, loving man. The former teacher knows a lot about a lot, but never feels like he is above anyone and wants to get people interested in learning. He visited his mother in the retirement community often and adopted a dog that just showed up at his place one day. He also collects a ton of other items, such as antique carpentry tools and an old steeple that was used as a church gazebo for years. He makes the audience feel like a member of the community with a kind voice and sweet smile.
All of that is great. Zahs has no personal gain here but does it because he loves history and thinks it should be saved and experienced to be fully appreciated. His enormous heart and affection for the small town life he lives give Saving Brinton a surprising emotional depth, which the ending pays off beautifully.
“…brilliant cinematography making every second feel warm and inviting, like a good hug from an old friend.”
However, as the man at the center of the story has so many interests, so does the movie go all over the place. It is barely 90 minutes, if it even hits that mark, yet is too long. Several moments see Zahs just rambling off about this or that, as the movie veers off course. One scene is just Zahs listing off everyone in the cemetery he tidies up, right off the top of his head. It is impressive to show his eye for detail, but the viewer is already well aware of such a thing, so it is entirely pointless.
Another tangent is about how a seventh-grade student of his saved the old City Hall building or seeing him talk to a group of kids about the differences between a log cabin versus a log house. This makes the middle 30, or 40, minutes drag on quite a bit.
Happily, the directing is solid with screenwriter John Richard’s brilliant cinematography making every second feel warm and inviting, like a good hug from an old friend. The music as well is quite catching. The score mixes in older songs and musical cues from the movies at the heart of the matter to high energy mix that captures the feeling very well.
The highlight of Saving Brinton is seeing the reels that Zahs is touring. These early films, most of them from before 1900, are neat to see from a film history perspective. However, from a movie buff’s angle, it is even more fascinating. Recognizing the early effects of Méilès is joyous.
Saving Brinton loses focus a few times, but its noble heart will keep the viewer engaged. Zahs is an affable chap, and his love of history is remarkable. His quest to save Brinton’s collection is an enjoyable one that will leave the audience happy and with a deeper affection for the way these films were shown back in the day.
Saving Brinton (2018) Directed by Tommy Haines, Andrew Sherbrune. Written by Tommy Haines, Andrew Sherburne, John Richard. Starring Michael Zahs, Serge Bromberg, Greg Prickman, Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, Elaine Zahs, Julie Zahs.
8 out of 10 Reels Of Film