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.

Art-house warrior and former U of M instructor Milgrom, freed from the day-to-day drudgery he so often bemoans, could bring to the table his long-cultivated knack for seeking out and securing rare masterpieces. Each would gain a "second screen" to hold over hits. And this asset might allow a hip new campus-based entity to compete with the Landmark chain's Uptown-Lagoon corporate juggernaut, which remains the favorite of foreign-film distributors despite rarely reserving more than one of its six screens for subtitled movies.

But while mergers and acquisitions might rule the day in commercial cinema, nonprofits can follow a more idiosyncratic and human script. True, both theaters are struggling and need the other in order to expand. Oak Street has just endured its worst quarter in recent memory and has already abandoned year-round repertory fare. ("How many times can you run Casablanca?" remarks Cowgill.) Milgrom, who brought the European New Wave to town 40 years ago, has struggled for the past decade to compete against the mainstreaming of what might be called the American New Wave--the post-Sundance indie chic embodied in the career of neo-auteurs such as Steven Soderbergh. Still, the 12 years between sex, lies, and videotape and Traffic have seen a surprising development: the reemergence of U Film's principle dowry, the foreign-subtitle-dominated Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.

Now in its 19th year, MSPIFF (none dare call it "Umspiff") is the plum that finds Milgrom as sought after as a hyped Hollywood script. Milgrom, after all, is the festival. And by all accounts the 18th Annual Milgrom of 2000 was its most successful, at least since the society's early-Nineties heyday. U Film estimated a 25 percent jump in attendance from the previous year, with more involvement than ever from local filmmaking support networks such as the Minnesota Film Board and the Independent Feature Project/North. Published late last year, Adam Langer's book The Film Festival Guide praised Milgrom for zeroing in on "the offbeat, the unusual, the unsung," and named Minneapolis/St. Paul the "first runner-up" below a list of the top 16 international fests in the world.

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

No wonder more people than usual are asking an age-old question: Who will succeed Al Milgrom should he make good on his repeated threats to retire? Or, as Milgrom puts it, "How will they get rid of me?"

Recently, a number of would-be suitors have emerged alongside Bob Cowgill to take charge of the society and/or its annual cash cow. Last summer IFP/North's Jane Minton approached the U Film board about purchasing, and assuming control of, the festival by 2002. Former U Film employee and board member Randy Adamsick, head of the Minnesota Film Board, has repeatedly expressed interest in taking the reins. When Anne E. McQuinn, who has helped coordinate the festival with Milgrom for the past four years, speaks of the festival's future, she sometimes uses the first-person singular.

And this year's collaboration with the Walker Art Center perhaps introduces a new player: the museum's Belgian film-and-video curator Cis Bierinckx, who met Milgrom at a welcoming party shortly after arriving in September and has maintained a respectful relationship ever since. As a partial upshot of this new alliance, the Walker will present an 11-film sidebar, "New Asian Currents," the first such collaboration between the powerhouse museum and the society in more than a decade.

Milgrom is understandably prickly about questions of succession, and at moments flatly refuses to discuss the possibility of a merger between Oak Street Cinema and U Film. His official line is "There's no story to report" and that "if and when anything happens, people will be duly notified." Even if U Film agrees to "intend to merge," neither organization would be legally bound to do so.

The eternal and unspoken Plan B has been in effect for years: "Al could run the Film Society as it's being run forever," says Cowgill. "But we know there is no forever, and it's the same with the Oak Street. One of the things that we're trying to hammer out here is an organization that will outlast both of us, that would be larger than we are."

Yet few seem able to conceive of a U Film Society without Al Milgrom, least of all Al Milgrom. "We're not psychologically prepared to deal with this," he says about the merger during an initial meeting for this article. He's specifically referring to the overwhelming distraction of dealing with the festival, and to such possible new expansions as a second screen in the shuttered Galtier Plaza Cinema in Lowertown St. Paul (to be used on a trial basis over three festival weekends). But his comment is telling. If there is a story here for those who care about U Film, it is whether Milgrom might not see the society destroyed before he would see it handed over.


Bob Cowgill's red hair and beard were in full flower when a fiftysomething Al Milgrom picked him up hitchhiking in 1973. Like all local cinema nuts, Cowgill knew Milgrom through his campus-based film society, which had been around for more than a decade and remained the only place in town to see the work of Godard, Bergman, and Fellini. A college freshman at the time, Cowgill didn't know he would share a long-term connection with the cantankerous cineaste, who was then still teaching film at the University of Minnesota.

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