Review: In ‘Saving Brinton,’ an Inveterate Accumulator Finds Treasure
By Wesley Morris
It’s clear five minutes into “Saving Brinton” that the line between hoarder and preservationist really is fine. It’s also clear that you need sensitive, humane filmmaking to insist that one is very different from the other. The average documentary would gawk. This one reclassifies: One person’s pack rat is another’s collector. And Michael Zahs, this movie’s sturdily built, mighty bearded subject, does indeed collect.
An entire room of his rural eastern Iowa home is full of, among many other things, antique-looking carpentry tools. Another contains a file cabinet crammed with precious entertainment memorabilia, and, to open it, Mr. Zahs has to wedge himself between it and a larger piece of loaded shelving. He’s got stuff stored at his mother’s farm. And don’t ask about the gazebo, felled out front, demurely sheeted by snow. It wasn’t his — until it was.
But there’s something loosely exalted about Mr. Zahs. He actually doesn’t collect, per se. His relationship to possessions (and animals) is more cosmically passive. A lot of what he has he’s accumulated. Even his pets found him. In a sense, so did that enormous trove of memorabilia, which includes reels of early silent short films by pioneers like Georges Méliès. It all once belonged to a local couple, Frank and Indiana Brinton, who traveled around long ago, dazzling people with what at the time would have been popular culture’s future. And, for years, Mr. Zahs has been as delighted to share the magic of popular culture’s past. (He bought the collection in 1981 from the Brintons’ neighbor.)
This is a man who prizes his material — old prints and projection equipment, but also photographs, posters, instruments, sheet music, hand fans and flipbooks — and, when we meet him, is in the process of handing it over to the University of Iowa. (Martin Scorsese, whose “Hugo” was about Méliès, expressed some interest in the collection, but apparently that went nowhere.) Mr. Zahs and his undiscovered Méliès film from 1901, however, do sufficiently impress both the Library of Congress and the filmmaker and historian Serge Bromberg.
So we get not just film preservation but also a livestock auction, classroom visits, a trip to Europe, a reunion event and several stops at the nursing home where his mother resides. What’s most stirring (after the silent movies) is the piecemeal emergence of vibrant small-town life and the pride Mr. Zahs takes in it. But that feels more incidental, since Mr. Zahs might be the romantic ideal of that life.
The movie’s hands-off approach does often amount to something poignant. In sharing what he’s accrued over the decades, Mr. Zahs manages to share a lot of himself. He’s a nearly biblical, certainly biblical-looking, caretaker — of people, places and things. But this movie might want too much to take care of him. That affection means a film that’s happier to present than to interrogate, although I wish somebody had asked about the photo of a man, who might be Mr. Brinton, seated, holding a mandolin, in blackface. (In lieu of inquiry, the soundtrack gives us a rendition of “Old Folks at Home,” one of Stephen Foster’s minstrel-era classics.)
But the trouble is that despite how earnest and committed Mr. Zahs appears to be, the story of what’s in the collection might be more be more fascinating than the man who’s collected it.