A retired history teacher in rural eastern Iowa, where Amish farmers still plow their fields and travel to town on actual horsepower, Michael Zahs has an eccentric, nearly irresistible way of connecting young students to the past. When he appears as a guest lecturer at small-town schools, he brings old handmade implements from the hoarder’s collection of contraptions he keeps in his farmhouse.
Tall, portly, with a remarkable white beard that reaches his upper stomach, he could be a close relative of Santa. He’s certainly jolly. We see him display for students what resembles a partial baseball bat with upper handles like a dowsing rod. Kids eagerly raise hands and guess what they’re seeing as Zahs encourages them to slow down and pay attention. Then he explains it’s a wooden leg for a veteran of a now-forgotten war. Suddenly, taking a peek into the past is fascinating: there are human elements!
In the superlative documentary “Saving Brinton,” this jovial pack rat finds a similar way to link modernity and tradition, introducing contemporary viewers to a treasure trove of cinema history. Picking up a collection of 10,000 artifacts from the long-inactive estate of Frank and Indiana Brinton in a farmhouse basement, he rescued a century-old film collection that was about to head to the dump.
There was rare footage of President Teddy Roosevelt and the first moving images from far-off Burma. There were reels from Thomas Edison and a long-lost title in near-perfect shape from Georges Méliès, the pioneering French director and magical illusionist who made the first science fiction film, “A Trip to the Moon.”
Much of the film from that era, stored on nitrate reels that disintegrate — or worse, burst into flame — is lost. Cooperating with restoration specialists at the Library of Congress, Zahs made it his mission to save the Brinton library from the decay that has wiped out 80 to 90 percent of that era’s films. His story fascinated filmmakers Tommy Haines, John Richard and Andrew Sherburne and should charm countless others as well.
Zahs and the three filmmakers are in Minnesota this week to discuss the documentary. They will attend showings Thursday and Friday evenings by the Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul at St. Anthony Main and Saturday afternoon at the Sheldon Theatre in Red Wing as part of the Flyway Film Festival.
Frank Brinton was a farm boy turned into a notable showman, ballyhooing cinema in the best tradition of Barnum and Bailey. Between the 1890s and 1900s, he energetically barnstormed the Midwest from Texas to Minnesota. Most of America’s heartland saw their first projected images, in all their silent, black and white glory, at a Brinton show.
Zahs decided to restore the audiences for silent film as much as the film stock itself. He set out to mirror Brinton’s entrepreneurial efforts, showing 100-year-old moving images of life and imagination to hundreds of modern viewers. They find the accompanying live music as delightful, the magic tricks as dazzling, the landscape shots as breathtaking, and the gags as hilarious as viewers did a century ago.
It’s hard to look at the beautifully hand-colored sequences from the Méliès discovery, or watch Zahs’ delight in showing auditoriums full of neighbors a slice of true art transcending time, without feeling hooked yourself.