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.

The two would become colleagues and competitors over the years. With a partner, Cowgill showed art films at the West Bank's Cedar Theatre between 1978 and 1982. He remembers why many locals considered Milgrom a hero even then. "He's so noncorporate and nontraditional, and he seems to burn with some kind of authentic energy," Cowgill says.

Milgrom was widely seen as the larger-than-life cosmopolitan who had the vision to bring world cinema--and hence a large slice of the culture we call "the Sixties"--to the Upper Midwest. Reared by Russian Jewish immigrants in Pine City, Minnesota (his father had served in the czar's army), Albert was weaned on such Depression-era classics as City Lights and The Champ. He served as a photo lab officer in Japan during World War II, married in the Pacific, divorced, married again in Europe, divorced again, and has three grown children. Having earned a degree in journalism at the U of M on the GI Bill, Milgrom held newspaper jobs around the world and has lived in Australia, France, Germany, and California. In the late 1940s he worked for future Kennedy press secretary Pierre Salinger, and he shot a 1959 travelogue in Russia at the height of the Cold War.

A wild-tempered film intellectual, Milgrom was routinely compared to eccentric French film historian Henri Langlois--though Walter Matthau would have played Milgrom in the movie. Milgrom has Matthau's wry grasp on sad realities and has always known how to bend practical means to his impractical passions. One story has it that the Film Society was born when Milgrom, who was teaching film courses for the university's art-history department in the early Sixties, rented films for his classes during the week, then held on to the prints and screened them for the public on weekends. (Milgrom strenuously disputes this account.) In any case, Milgrom presented the only opportunity to see the European classics, and from this void sprang the University Film Society.

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

In subsequent years, U Film became synonymous with cinema in Minnesota, bringing to town such legends as Jean-Luc Godard, Josef von Sternberg, Pauline Kael, Wim Wenders, Robert Altman, Lasse Hallström--the list could fill one of Milgrom's hand-typed pages. A young Werner Herzog crashed on his couch. Liv Ullman received a made-up U Film "award" in the form of a crystal bowl. State senators stormed a screening of Pasolini's Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom and tried to have Milgrom arrested for trafficking in smut. (A year ago the society caused a minor stir by screening a 3-D porn classic.)

All along, the society's founder has scoured every ethnic enclave of the Cities in the steadfast belief that audiences are meant to be created, not catered to.

"I think he's on the frontlines of the Film Society in the true Sixties sense of the word," says Bob Strong, a former manager of the Uptown Theatre who worked with Milgrom for years as an assistant programmer. "It's a guerrilla theater exhibition. He's fighting in the trenches to get those films out."

Strong remembers the year Milgrom secured a rare Chechen film for the festival and told staff he wanted to show it on opening night. "It turns out it was either that or this other little-known German film called Run Lola Run," Strong laughs. "The staff was saying, 'No, Run Lola Run is going to be big. It's a perfect film-festival film.' And of course Run Lola Run won, and we all kind of chuckled after the discussion was over. But I just remember thinking: Once Al's gone, there's not going to be anyone arguing for a Chechen film. There's not going to be a Chechen film."

This is the stuff, in part, of The Legend: the image of Milgrom as a Volvo-gunning, backbreaking, ball-busting partisan for art on the screen. And if the Legend becomes fact--well, to borrow John Ford's phrase, print the legend. Newspaper profile after newspaper profile has reinforced this narrative, helped along by an amusing but light-treading 1998 short "Al Milgrom: Last of the Red Hot Programmers" (which screened on the Independent Film Channel). Even Milgrom is tired of this refrain, which only occasionally hits critical notes--pointing out, for example, that employment at U Film can be a trial by volume, in every sense of the word.

"It's not the workload so much, it's just trying to take in everything Al's shouting at you," says Kyle Reinhart, who has worked at the society for two years. "He'll rip off 20 things, and he'll end up doing 19 of them. You just have to make sure you do that one thing. Once you learn how to deal with that system, it makes the job a whole lot easier."

Like Reinhart, U Film staffer Ira Brooker was hired on the spot when he walked in the society's door. "The first time I said my name, Al asked me if I was any relation to the Northbranch Brookers," he remembers. "He told me that he had run track against my grandfather when he was in high school. So on the drop of a last name he instantly recalled a guy that he ran a track meet against 60 years earlier from a different school. That's a pretty good indicator of the Al memory."

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