A-List: ‘Saving Brinton’ explores a forgotten chapter of the silent film era

Still from Saving Brinton

Surrounded by his personal trove of bygone curiosities and the projected images of people who lived over a century ago, Mike Zahs announces to an audience at the State Theatre in Washington, Iowa, “We have tried to do things very authentically, and I know that doesn’t really interest anybody but me.”

Zahs does not consider himself a historian, or even a collector. Rather he refers to himself and his grandfathers before him as “savers.” Saving Brinton documents Zahs’ efforts “to get people excited” about the hundred-year-old nitrate film collection of W. Frank and Indiana Brinton, an Iowa couple that toured the mid-United States from the 1890s through the early 1900s with a magic lantern and hand-crank film projector.

Setting up in small towns from Minnesota to Texas, the Brintons’ traveling cinema show was for most Midwesterners of the era a first encounter with moving images. The Brintons’ collection had films from all over the globe, including the Middle East, Europe and Southeast Asia. In this way, the Brintons’ show was not only an introduction to new technology, but also a window to far-off peoples and places around the world.

Unfortunately, in 1919, seemingly at the height of the traveling show’s popularity, Frank Brinton passed away. When his wife died in 1955, her estate’s executor moved the collection to his basement — where it remained until Zahs learned of its existence in 1981. For over 30 years, Zahs not only kept the films in the cool, dark space of his backyard shed, he also sought out enthusiasts who might share in his excitement for these artifacts of early film history.

As film historians know all too well, only a small percentage of silent films still exist. By one estimate, approximately 90 percent of all American silent films made before 1929 are considered lost films. When Zahs finally got people excited, it was ultimately historians, academics and archivists from Humanities Iowa and the University of Iowa Libraries’ Special Collections, as well as UI Emeritus Professor of Film Studies Rick Altman, and French film historian Serge Bromberg, who, upon seeing a George Méliès short from the Brinton collection, which was previously thought lost, exclaims, “I need a drink — and believe me, not water.”

Despite the onscreen fervor of cinéphiles such as Altman and Bromberg, filmmakers Tommy Haines, John Richard and Andrew Sherburne present Zahs’ journey in the restrained manner of observational documentarians. Interspersed with carefully composed and sumptuously shot scenes of Iowa farmland (shown both snow-covered in winter and sun-drenched in summer) and small-town main streets and storefronts, there is a distinct cinéma-verité approach to Zahs as a subject.

You might even flash back to the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens when Zahs first leads the filmmakers through his home and into the “Brinton room” that can barely contain the innumerable overflowing boxes of artifacts associated with the film collection. Even Zahs expresses apprehension at revealing the material reality of his passion project: “No other living people have been in this room. And I don’t know why I’m doing it.”

Further expressing the paradox of his situation, he adds: “I know what these pictures are going to look like. They’re going to look like who I am … and it’s gonna look like I’m one of those obsessive people, or something.”

Zahs’ penchant for all things “authentic,” “original” and “unique” might seem ironic given that the invention of the photographic image is the very technology that prompted Walter Benjamin in 1935 to declare dead the “aura” of a work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. That is, what value could an original filmstrip have — compared, for example, to an original painting — if it is, and is designed to be, so readily reproduced?

But of course, Jacques Derrida’s 1995 Archive Fever theorizes what so many of us feel instinctively: Modern obsessions with the archive are born of a desire to “return to the authentic and singular origin” — due in part to the very reproducibility of contemporary culture that allegedly devalued the aura of art in the first place.

Zahs is in good hands with fellow Iowans Haines, Richard and Sherburne.

“I’m a bit of a minimalist, so I don’t share Mike’s archivist instincts,” Sherburne told me. “But I do love history, so I appreciate his dedication to saving for the rest of us. Mike and Frank also share quite a bit. Most of all a love of storytelling. That’s where we all come together, in our different ways — searching for that great story and finding an audience.”

Still from Saving Brinton

The film’s fly-on-the-wall footage doesn’t expose an obsessive; rather it reveals a generous and genuine folk hero who sincerely believes that the past is worth saving if only for the sake of the future — even when we don’t yet know what that future might hold.

Saving Brinton began its tour of Iowa on Sept. 17 at the State Theatre in Washington, where Frank Brinton first showed his films in 1897. The filmmakers say it’s a thrill to trace Brinton’s footsteps across the state. Richard added, “Going from town to town with a show is an old tradition that the Brintons and our group are now a part of. People love to get together to hear a story and see things they have never seen before and that is an important part of filmmaking to me.”

For those of us with ties to Iowa, Saving Brinton offers yet another reason to feel proud of the Hawkeye State — and not just because the State Theatre is now officially the longest continuously running movie theater in the world. The film is like a series of nesting dolls of heartland spirit, telling first the story of the Brintons, who offered many Americans their only glimpse of life outside the Midwest; then of Zahs, who preserved the Brintons’ lifework so that he might in turn share their vision with future generations; and finally of Haines, Richard and Sherburne, whose film, in both form and style, reflects the unassuming perseverance of the Iowans who came before them, and a renewed dedication to sharing stories through the magic of cinema.

Leah Vonderheide is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Cinematic Arts at the University of Iowa. She loves films old and new. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 228.

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