Film Review: Saving Brinton

Documentary about an Iowa collector who restores the holdings of an early 20th-century entertainment company.
Specialty Releases

Packrats are the most obvious audience for Saving Brinton, a modestly entertaining sketch of Iowa collector Michael Zahs. The film follows Zahs as he explores the history behind an Iowa company run by Frank and Indiana Brinton.

The Brintons exhibited movies during the early 20th century, shorts they projected in Grange halls and opera houses across rural Iowa and the Midwest. The titles included actualities (street scenes and the like) from Edison and other companies, and novelty or trick films by Georges Méliès and his rivals.

Frank Brinton died in 1919, Indiana in 1955, and Zahs purchased their film holdings in 1981. For years he tried and failed to drum up interest in the Brintons, but in 2013 Greg Prickman of the University of Iowa agreed to examine the Brinton collection, which numbered over 8,000 items.

Among the holdings were Brinton's hand-cranked projector, still in working order, and some five hours of nitrate footage, most of which was digitized. The collection yielded two unique Méliès shorts previously thought lost.

The filmmakers follow Zahs as he meets with George Willemon at the Library of Congress and the redoubtable Serge Bromberg from Lobster Films in Paris. A restored version of The Triple Headed Lady (1901) screens at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, Italy. Zahs later holds a "Brinton Extravaganza" in Iowa's State Theatre.

Genial but skin-deep, Saving Brinton takes a "gee whiz" approach to film history, mangling facts, attaching too much weight to coincidences, and repeating myths and half-truths about early cinema.

The Brintons were among scores of itinerant filmmakers and exhibitors who crisscrossed the country at the time. They dropped out of entertainment as the industry was consolidating and their business model no longer made sense. The "newest" title in their collection dates to 1911, just before film really took off as an art form. The only noteworthy aspect of their collection is that it remained largely intact.

Zahs is an affable hoarder who helped bring lost Méliès work to light. But he seems more interested in trivia, in semi-accurate stories and funny tales, than in finding a cultural or historical context for the Brintons. The filmmakers too are content to follow Zahs around instead of digging up facts. They don't identify most of the films they excerpt or even bother to show them in their proper aspect ratios. Their documentary doesn't "save" the Brintons at all, it just points out that they existed.

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