By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
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'?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
Yet the routine has its rewards for Milgrom: To observe him at festivals around the world is to watch someone at home. Everyone knows him there, and he's well acquainted with how to find all the good food tables, interesting conversations, lively parties, and cheap hostels. But in Milgrom's own locale, his passion can be both generous and unforgiving. Feed his enthusiasm, and you'll get a gush of encouragement--as when Milgrom pushed Rolf Belgum to bump his video master of Driver 23 up to 35mm, a move that led to wider exposure for that documentary. Get in his way, and you'll encounter a bitter streak that supporters find confounding.
"When I look back, I think I put a lot of things on hold," he admits. "Unfortunately, the Film Society has ruined my life."
He pauses, letting an intense look freeze on his face. Then he forces a long laugh, as if he were joking all along. Milgrom says this line every year, colleagues report. Prompting the question: Is he trying to tell himself something?
In High Noon, Gary Cooper's sheriff tells incredulous townspeople that he'll defend them against the murderers when the moment of reckoning arrives. But no one quite believes him until he draws his guns. At the U Film Society, Al Milgrom has informally announced his retirement every year since 1992, and few take him at his word. The last supposed "sabbatical" he took was in 1993, and it lasted for six weeks. "I was here the whole the time," Milgrom says. "There are too many things that fall through the cracks."
The acknowledged heart and guts of the society began making more official-sounding noises about leaving in 1994, when he publicly and adamantly declared that he would be doing something else by 1998. In 1997 he announced that he would relinquish some duties immediately, then relinquished none.
In person, Milgrom maintains that he is not at all uncomfortable with the idea of passing the U Film Society on to a successor. "Like anyone in his golden years, your friends start dropping like flies," he says. "I don't want to die with my projector around my neck. And you wonder, what would I do tomorrow if I wasn't doing this? I would have to go into career counseling. I would have to recycle my personality. Seriously, I'd have to reprioritize my ego and my ambitions. I'd need three months holding my head in my hands and reflecting, and then I'd do something."
But those who have known Milgrom for years are skeptical that he will ever retire. Randy Adamsick was with him for the society's first, seat-of-the-pants international festival back when it started in Stillwater two decades ago. (He held up a piece of cardboard to frame the projection of the opening-night movie, The Grey Fox.) After leaving the staff in 1988, Adamsick stayed on as a board member, and he remembers flying with Milgrom to a Washington seminar for arts-organization founders looking to cultivate successors.
"We got an NEA advancement grant," explains Adamsick. "You put together a proposal, a five-year plan for succession, and they fund you--I think we got a hundred grand. But what I'll never forget was going with Al to the NEA offices, and going to this seminar on founder-directors and their protégés. It was a room full of people like Al and me. And it was all the same issues: You, as the protégé, will never have the same intensity or passion--true--and the founder will never let go and hand it over to you. The pride just sits in doing it.
"It's always been something of a mystery to me--and I think this relates to this merger---that Al has had little or no interest in what happens to the Film Society after he leaves. And I don't think he will leave. At the low points, it exists so Al will have a place to go in the morning."
Some 20 employees have circulated through the Film Society in the past decade alone, and Milgrom has trained several four-to-six-year die-hards who believed they might one day succeed him. "I think a really sad thing has been his propensity to push people like me out," says Adamsick. "When a lieutenant--as he used to call me--reaches a certain level, suddenly..." What? Is he or she fired?
"No," says Adamsick, "He wears you down. My ticket to leave the staff was when I really felt I was going to hit Al. I'll tell you the incident, because it's kind of hilarious: He was just irate because the Minnesota Daily did not have a review of that night's film. And the reason there was no review was that the day of the screening, the writer's mother had died. And he said, 'That's not good enough.' He literally said that."
Milgrom responds that he's never pushed anyone out. "I've never groomed anybody to be a successor," he says. "If they want to be a successor, let them show me what they've got. But Minneapolis is talent-poor. Look at the Walker. Did they find someone in town? No, they needed to do an international search."
Still, as with that unedited film stock in his basement, Al does have a way of holding on to things. Years after the international festival moved from Stillwater to Minneapolis, he nostalgically clung to the nonsensical Rivertown name--"which river, which town" became a society in-joke--before finally relinquishing it in 1996.
"Al's a classic procrastinator, just ignoring the situation," says former employee Chris Dotson, who remembers how the society was evicted, along with other tenants, from a converted church in Stadium Village. (The university demolished the building in 1997 to construct student housing.) Milgrom hung on till the bitter end, staying even after a new office had been procured--and after the university had cut off both heat and electricity.
"In those last few days, we were packing up, and somebody came in and saw Al in his office, without any lights or phones, but still pounding away on his manual typewriter," remembers Bob Strong. With a space heater and extension cord, Milgrom kept pumping out press releases and flyers until employees coaxed him into the new space.
Few dispute that Milgrom's tenacity has kept the Film Society alive through the booms and busts of the art-house industry. Yet the Legend of Al Milgrom has done nothing to improve the group's low rank on the U of M's priority list for parking and office facilities. Last year the university stopped underwriting the society's rent for office space. You can see why rumormongers got ahead of themselves when indie-film godfather John Pierson erroneously told the film-news wire service indieWIRE in 1999 that "the university has finally closed Al down after 35 years."
As his employees attest, without Milgrom, U Film would collapse. And at least one funder has shown concern over this fact. In 1997 a panel of the Minnesota State Arts Board recommended withholding its annual General Operating Support grant, which every significant arts group in the state receives almost as a matter of course. The decision was reversed, but only after Milgrom lobbied board members around the state and enlisted the aid of legislators. "I will...grant that the UFS could have a better structured management," wrote state Rep. Phyllis Kahn to the board, "and that the director (Mr. Milgrom) may not be the easiest person to deal with. I would imagine, though, that the popes probably also had their problems with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci."
Milgrom's combination of putting off, and fighting off, the inevitable can be comic. Last year, according to Randy Adamsick, he fell off a ladder outside his house. "I was talking to him and suddenly he said, 'Ugh, I hurt my side,'" remembers Adamsick. "I said, 'What happened?' He said, 'I was out painting my house. I was getting off the ladder, I missed the last step, and I fell.'
"I said, 'Oh, really, you were painting your house?' He said, 'Yeah, the city was going to give me a citation if I didn't throw some paint up there.'
"If you see his house, there's barely any paint left on it. The idea of masking it by throwing a little paint up there was a pretty funny concept."
In recent years Al Milgrom has spoken more frankly, and in specific terms, about plans to pass on his life's work. But those plans have a way of falling apart. Early last summer Jane Minton of the Independent Feature Project/North approached U Film about buying the festival outright: administering it for a year, then taking full control by 2002. The offer included funding to phase Milgrom into retirement; the society itself has no money dedicated to that cause. (At times Milgrom has drawn little or no salary, supporting gaps in his income with social security.)
"The main reason why we wanted to buy the festival is that this town needs to have a highly visible, well-organized festival," says Minton. "Al is operating on a model that is based on nonprofits circa the Carter administration. It's not professionally operated. And some of the staff that are there drive people in this community crazy. I can't tell you how many phone calls I get from members and people who just moved to this community who say, 'If we can't work with Al, can we start our own film festival?'"
Minton met with the board several times. But talks fell through when Minton caught wind of the proposal on the table from Bob Cowgill and Oak Street, who had already received grant money to hire a corporate facilitator and enter into merger negotiations. "Al was doing that and us at the same time," says Minton. "I don't think he was ever even remotely serious."
The Oak Street founder says he hastily prepared a proposal of his own last August and presented it to Milgrom. This time, he wanted to avoid the mistakes of his previous advances, which, in McQuinn's words, "blew up in his face." Back in 1997 he had approached U Film board chair Kate Tennessen with the ideas of merging.
"We didn't have a merger facilitator, we didn't have a structure set up," Cowgill says. "And I was just sort of shooting from the hip. The reason I did it that way is that in my first conversation with Kate Tennessen she was sort of [saying] 'Yes, we need you.' And I think she got out ahead of where her board was."
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.
"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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