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.

Adamsick, who was on U Film's board at the time, remembers holding the initial meetings without Milgrom. "We knew his future would be a difficult issue," Adamsick says. "So we asked Al not to be a part of the first three sessions. But it was like, as soon as Al left the room, Bob felt a great need to become Al. Suddenly he was just as unreasoning, tyrannical, and single-minded. I felt Bob was really saying, 'Well, just give me the Bell."

This time around, Cowgill took care to see that a scheme emerged from the discussions rather than vice versa. "It wasn't going to be about me imposing a vision on anybody," he says. "So I made a proposal again in September, and their board agreed to go ahead with discussions."

The process has gone smoothly, if slowly. A facilitator had to be hired and the interview process took months (the parties eventually agreed on Kim Hunter, a St. Paul attorney). But the meetings themselves staked out a consensus of sorts. Tentatively, according to Cowgill, the two administrators agreed that Milgrom would stay on as artistic director and festival director, while Cowgill would take the mantle of executive director. Bell would remain within Milgrom's sphere of influence, Oak Street within Cowgill's. Milgrom even seemed fine with moving into Oak Street's offices, says Cowgill. But as meetings proceeded, Milgrom began to backpedal.

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

"It's like buying a car," says Cowgill. "It seems like a good idea, but as you get closer to actually putting down money, you start to notice the price."

Breakdowns occurred, participants say, mainly over disagreements between McQuinn and Milgrom. "Whenever you get Al and Anne in a room together, there's always chaos," says Amy Borden, an Oak Street staffer who was present at the negotiations. "Anne tends to browbeat Al. I think that she really loves him. She really respects him as a programmer and an artist. But at the same time she really likes to control things, so she tries to control him, for what she sees as what's best for him."

McQuinn asserts that the negotiations haven't yet produced a viable plan for the future of U Film. "We are nowhere near as close as Cowgill thinks we are," she says. "Until we see so much on paper that says, hey, this really could happen, it's just silly to start talking to the community about it."

"The big problem is how are we going to mesh staffs?" Milgrom says. "Where's the money going to come from? There are all kinds of things to discuss."

In the meantime, Milgrom is puzzled why the public should care about backstage intrigue. "Why is this about me? I just want to live and die in obscurity. I want to get my job done and have people appreciate what I'm doing."

And to this end, Milgrom has been busy putting on the largest film festival in the Upper Midwest with an underpaid skeleton crew of four and vintage computer equipment. Under the stress of the never-ending present, Milgrom is unwilling to speculate about what may lie ahead. (Part of Milgrom's anxiety, it should be conceded, has to do with this article, and the potential its attendant publicity has to affect--or perhaps effect--the merger.)

"He seems amenable to it," says Adamsick of the negotiations, "but on a subconscious level, at least, I know that he'll probably kill it. At the end of meetings with IFP, the U Film board president, Steve Zuckerman, pulled the IFP group aside after Al had left and said, 'You know, this is all fine, what we talked about, combining organizations. But you know the Film Society is not an organization to Al. It's his life.' And any change to that is very threatening."

At press time, the U Film board has yet to schedule a vote on the proposal to "intend to merge" with Oak Street Cinema.

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