Print the Legend

In 40 self-sacrificing years at the helm of the University Film Society, Al Milgrom has seen his reputation grow to mythic stature. How this grumpy old man might cope with turning over his lifeís work is another story.

If the world were a Western, we would begin with a tracking shot of Washington Avenue, going from the Oak Street Cinema to the University Film Society offices a few blocks away. Bob Cowgill has walked this Burger King-perfumed stretch of Stadium Village many times since he founded his film revival house on Oak Street in 1995. But on Tuesday, March 20, he's edgier than usual about meeting the Film Society's irascible founder and director Al Milgrom. In the Western, the scene would be a showdown, a shootout, a duel. In the version offscreen, the meeting is something harder to define.

Just after high noon, Cowgill ducks out of the sun and knocks on U Film's door, and soon Milgrom appears, shoulders slumped in his characteristically persecuted posture, the office space behind him in typical pre-festival chaos. In a corner cubicle, a sleepless and whiskery student employee, Kyle Reinhart, furiously types movie summaries for the catalog of the society's upcoming 19th Annual Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, which will comprise more than 100 features from 49 countries on seven screens over three weeks in April.

"What would you call a charming person from Greenland?" Reinhart asks Milgrom. "A 'charming Greenlander'?"

Photo of Al Milgrom from U film's middle days, by Greg Helgeson
Photo of Al Milgrom from U film's middle days, by Greg Helgeson

There are stacks of papers on every horizontal surface, and a randomly chosen sample might be typical: a fax addressed to the Dutch embassy in Tehran requesting a visa for a film producer with the last name Mollagholipour. Milgrom leaves a long-distance number half-dialed as he greets Cowgill, absently letting the speakerphone pipe on: "If you'd like to make a call, please hang up and try again. If you need help..."

In his hand the Oak Street founder holds a thick, sealed envelope, which he passes to Milgrom, who stares at it for a moment. The day before, Oak Street's board of directors voted unanimously to "intend to merge" with the University Film Society--a proposal outlined in the letter. This vote culminated a month and a half of delicate negotiations between the two nonprofit art houses, specifically between members of their boards and between their founders. Should the merger go forward, it would represent a melding of staffs and also of styles.

A quick glance at the two figures in the doorway indicates why a successfully arranged marriage might be a model for the Montagues and Capulets. Cowgill's blazing red hair and beard are conservatively cropped; Milgrom's iron-gray shock is long and romantically swept back, the sideburns thick enough to brush over his ears. Cowgill gives the impression of a grown-up film geek easing into his mellow middle 40s. Milgrom has the build and speed of an aged but ragged athlete, bracing for the worst in his frantic late 70s. Cowgill offers a cheerful, classroom-tone greeting; he also arrives accompanied by the press (this reporter). Milgrom responds with a low, distracted rasp and pretty much ignores the press (this reporter).

Both managers can be, according to those who work for them, unbearable pains in the ass. ("Al's a crazyman, and so is Bob," says Amy Borden, who has worked in both offices.) Yet their zeal may make them perfect partners. And the less obvious contrasts--Cowgill's proven management skills and marketing savvy with repertory fare, Milgrom's proven taste and global contacts in foreign cinema--may make them fruitful associates as well.

After receding into Milgrom's office for a minute, they emerge and stand in front of the dry-erase board on the wall. It displays the word Shit under the date March 10, the Saturday that the society's century-old and underequipped Bell Auditorium was temporarily closed to filmgoers by the University of Minnesota, with only three days' notice. The school rents out Bell's 350 seats to U Film in exchange for only custodial fees, and reserves the space just a few times a year. But after losing a second screen in Nicholson Hall four years ago, Milgrom has grown touchier about the society's status on campus: As the organization's Web site reads, "The Film Society itself feels victimized in this instance."

"I need to find out whether the meeting's tonight or Thursday night," Milgrom tells Cowgill, referring to the U Film board meeting that will in fact occur later that day. Both Milgrom and the board have agreed with Cowgill to vote on the matter by March 22--though that deadline will probably be pushed back.

Their business complete, the two directors talk shop. "How's Billy Liar doing?" asks Milgrom.

"Terrible," says Cowgill. "Second only to Who Killed Pasolini? But we'll take our lumps; we'll play anything [film distributor] Rialto has for a week, because they could have thrown Landmark [Theatres] The Third Man."

"I'd love to get some of those movies you would have shown three years ago, but they won't even talk to me," Milgrom laments.

Cowgill shrugs. "Well, maybe they'll talk to the new boss."

 

To those in the film community rooting for an Oak Street-U Film merger--and who saw a similar attempted union fizzle in 1997--the proposed marriage has an undeniable logic. Erstwhile Augsburg English professor Cowgill boasts a record of success with his repertory house, which reintroduces Chaplin, Hawks, and Antonioni to younger audiences. He could improve U Film's degraded relations with larger film distributors and strengthen the its intercourse with the university, which has long been less than ideal. Most of all, Cowgill could help Bell reach beyond its faithful but small audience of international cinema fans--the audience Al Milgrom almost single-handedly created in the first place.

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