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 life’s work is another story.

A few weeks ago, when Brooker and Reinhart were talking about *mad cow disease, Milgrom burst from his office with a fully formed regurgitation of the John Wayne "eat beef" speech from Red River: "To make 'em strong! To make 'em grow!"

Milgrom's employees can't help but learn from him. Making deliveries for U Film will teach you more about the demographics and ethnic concentrations of Minnesota than a census job. But there are plenty of tricks Milgrom simply can't teach.

"I remember I asked for the Swedish film Together and the [distributor] told me no," says Reinhart. "And I guess I just took it. He calls them up and comes back and says, 'Okay, the film's confirmed.' I don't know what he did different. I guess he just went a rung up higher."

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

Brooker laughs. "It's sort of like asking a favor from the Godfather."

 

It's perhaps a little too easy for film lovers to be charmed by Milgrom's crusading spirit and far-flung tactics--and entirely too easy to canonize him. Portraying the man as a colorful character has had the effect of whitewashing his mean side--and of obscuring what his very human failings as a leader cost the organization.

"I think that hurts U Film, this legend of the driven curmudgeon," says Nate Johnson, who went to work for Milgrom in 1999 and curated last year's "Sound Unseen" film-and-music festival. Upon arriving, Johnson approached U Film's board of directors to find out how he could make the Milgromcentric system comprehensible to newcomers. But he quickly discovered that no one on the board knew what the day-to-day operation entailed. He also found that most people in the film community had more or less thrown up their hands when it came to Milgrom's well-publicized pathologies: his voicemail tirades against critics, his caustic demeanor with distributors, his widely described belligerence toward employees. ("I've had the same bookkeeper since 1994, Bishow Dhungana," responds Milgrom to the claim that he's hard on staff. "Why would he stick around if I was abusive?")

Johnson suggests that the Legend also obscures the personal toll all this has taken on Milgrom himself: "In every story he'll say that he's not doing this for his health. He'll say he takes no pleasure in his work. These stories romanticize that. But it's not romantic. It's destructive, and not just to the society. Al can be incredibly sweet and funny, and we have some great times in the office. I just see that old complaining side of Al as self-inflicted by the amount that U Film does and the amount of things that he has taken on personally. It covers up the good side."

Longtime associate Randy Adamsick found more amusing personality conflicts while working at U Film. "My most frequent question to him was, 'Why are you acting this way? Do you never watch the films that we show?' Because what are the films? Full of great values, what's important in life. It was like, 'Do you ever watch these films and get cues on how to treat other people?"

In more reflective moments, Al Milgrom can speak eloquently about the transformative power of film--and does so after finally agreeing to a sit-down interview. "Part of being alive is being interested in the world," he says. "Film presents the world in a more empathic way than PBS or the news. If you can see the world through the problems of a person in Timbuktu, that helps you become more human, doesn't it?"

In person, Milgrom is cordial, even charming, but his favored topics of conversation are predictably tuned to a comfortable range of opinions and emotions. There is the enthusiasm for the upcoming festival, and the disdain for most movie coverage. There is also the impatience with discussing his future or that of the Film Society. And as always, there's the depressed, flip view of his life in the present tense.

"From day to day the drudgery of doing a festival constantly makes me say, 'Why am I doing this?'" he admits. "And it's hard to say. Is the public enriched by this? I'd like to think Minneapolis is a capital of film culture, but there are plenty of reasons to think otherwise."

Milgrom says he's in good health, but his staff has noticed a change. "He doesn't have the energy that he had four years ago, and he has openly admitted it," says festival administrator Anne McQuinn. "Things that he would not have let go of a few years ago, now he's very open to that. But he wants to find the right way to pass it on."

When reminded of an expired five-year plan to retire, Milgrom motions to the walls of papers and smiles faintly. "It's in here somewhere."

Things tend to get lost in the rush of routine--Milgrom has joked that his second wife named the Bell Auditorium as a co-respondent in their divorce. Colleagues say he has at least five unfinished, original films gathering moss in his basement: one on Dvorak, another on the Sixties riots in Minneapolis, and others still. When McQuinn completed her own feature, she remembers Milgrom telling her, "I'm envious that you got that far. I would have given anything to do that."

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