‘Saving Brinton’ in Duluth this week

Collector, history teacher, and weaver of a great yarn, Mike Zahs discovered of one of the world’s oldest surviving film collections in Washington County, Iowa.

I had my 20th class reunion this past Saturday. It was a lovely day of telling stories about the past. One of the scheduled events was a stop at our old high school. The plan was to watch a video my friends and I made my senior year.

This short film, shot and edited on our friend’s dad’s camcorder, became the stuff of legend. Full of zany short skits, car stunts, guns firing live ammo and smashed whiskey bottles, the video was deeply inappropriate to play in front of a school assembly. And yet we did.

1998 was the year before Columbine, the last gasp of a pre-viral video world. This naively controversial video could only exist in this narrow window of time.

The original video fell into the hands of a classmate, who tucked it away 20 years ago. We talked about it so much at the 10-year reunion that we decided to watch it at the 20th.

We’d been talking about it for weeks prior. Driving over to the school, my wife made a comment.

“I’ve been hearing about this video for 20 years,” she said. “There is just no way that it can be as good as you all think it is.”

In my heart I knew she was right. But I was excited anyway.

When the moment arrived we gathered in the sparkling new library at the Cherry School. Our classmate Kelly, the keeper of the video, is a school principal now. She expertly rigged an old school VCR to play through a computer onto a projection screen. (If there’s one thing principals know it’s how to play videos in a pinch).

As the video started playing, we became dismayed. A short clip of an old basketball game flickered on the screen before cutting to static. As near as we can tell, the crudely dubbed tape had simply degraded. Any evidence of this film’s true impact existed only in our minds.

While there is hope that a crack team could extract the video using better equipment, I have prepared myself that I will never see the film again.

That brings me to my topic for this post.

This Thursday, Aug. 16, the documentary “Saving Brinton” plays at the Zeitgeist Zinema Theater in downtown Duluth. The show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $15.

When an eccentric small-town collector discovers the showreels of the man who brought moving pictures to the Heartland, he begins a journey to restore the legacy of America’s greatest barnstorming movieman and save these irreplaceable cinematic treasures from turning to dust.

Filmmaker Tommy Haines and the film’s subject Mike Zahn will be on hand to discuss the film. The Pines, whose music makes an important appearance in the movie, will also play at the Aug. 16 event.

This film, steeped in a strong Midwestern vibe, earned international acclaim from many big name critics. It’s a good reminder — not that I needed one — that for media arts to survive they must be preserved.

If you’re in the neighborhood, check it out.

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