Who Needs the Hassle? This Guy.

Al Milgrom celebrated his inaugural film festival by going to jail. It hasn't gotten any easier.

Milgrom: That would be a standard line now, wouldn't it? Look at how Minneapolis has changed in the last five years; there are so many immigrant cultures here. Having grown up in lily-white Minnesota, where you had Scandinavian culture and that was about all, I find myself in a real melting pot. Is that an out-of-date term?

The problem is that it's not easy to get the new [immigrant] audiences. I would have to say that the audience for the festival over 25 years has remained fairly finite. In the '70s and '80s, we had the hippie audience, and now we have the aging hippie audience. We remain culturally bound by Minnesota. I think there's still a lot of provincialism in the state. You don't see [M-SPIFF] audiences lined up at 10:00 in the morning like you do in most other festival cities. What you get here is, "Well, we can't show this movie on Sunday night at 9:00 p.m., because people have to work on Monday."

This city, despite its good intentions...hardly ever comes up with any money for us. Maybe once about 15 years ago they gave us 150 bucks.

The boss of it all: Al Milgrom at the Oak Street Cinema
Nick Vlcek
The boss of it all: Al Milgrom at the Oak Street Cinema

CP: What is it about Minneapolis? From whence this "provincialism"?

Milgrom: I think it's partly a problem of the press—newspaper editors who don't want to cover a broad international spectrum, who say, "Our readers, they want stars, they don't want subtitles." Social class is another negative factor. Then there's the university and the educational establishment here. I don't know if you want to put the blame on French structuralism for our lack of cultural hipness, but you probably could.

The question is: What makes for a vital culture? The problem is the laziness of the audience, the vulgarity of the mainstream, including television, the general dumbing down of America. The younger generation doesn't want to read. We're across the street from 5,000 dorm kids. We put posters up, there's a marquee outside. You'd think they'd walk by and stop in once in a while, but they don't.

And then we have ourselves to blame, too. Add it up. There are too many factors. It all comes down to money, of course.

CP: Two-part question. First part is: Then why do it? And the second part is: What for you are the beautiful moments of this festival when you look back over 25 years?

Milgrom: See, I'm so involved with the immediate problems of deadlines, I haven't really given myself time to reflect. Plus amnesia sets in. I'd like to look back, but it's hard. What was the most beautiful movie of the 5,000 movies that you ran? First of all, you don't remember a lot of the stuff. I glanced at some of the old catalogs just briefly over the weekend and I said, "Jeez, did we run all those movies?" Some of those titles have long been forgotten, and some of them still stick in your mind.

One title that sticks out was this BBC drama with Alan Bates playing Guy Burgess, the spy in Moscow. That film [An Englishman Abroad] wasn't more than 52 minutes, made for TV. We played it in the second year of the festival, I think. It was such a little gem, just stellar, with such a good acting job by Bates. It would never have gotten shown if we hadn't played it.

And I would say that the first weekend in Stillwater was an awful lot of fun. There was a good group of us from the University Film Society, [former film critic] Bob Lundegaard came out from the Trib, we had a good lunch; there was a nice cool breeze off the St. Croix. There were some interesting films, too.

If the question is, "Why do it?" then the answer is...Mount Everest. Why climb that? Because it's there.

CP: Where do you want to take the festival from here?

Milgrom: We talked about doing a mini-festival this month—calling it "24-1/2"—and then doing the 25th in the fall. But we decided against it. Who knows if there's even gonna be a fall around here. Some giant meteorite might come crashing [laughs]. George Bush might still be in Iraq. If it's the 25th year, you have to do it—you can't not do the 25th. That's why it's being done this year. But who knows the fate from here? The festival is an enterprise that I hope survives, and I think it should. I just don't know if I'm gonna be around to see that it does. This [festival] just takes a lot of wear and tear on your soul. Everyone says, "Think positive, think positive."

CP: What happens when you think positive?

Milgrom: What makes me feel good is when we make contact with an audience. On Sunday morning, we managed to get some flyers on our Norwegian films out to the Easter breakfast crowd. They said, "Oh, Norwegian movies!" What's irritating is that we never get this PR out enough in advance so that people can make plans. What you want to do is have a smooth ship, so you can take care of all the little things that can screw you up. See, now I'm getting back to the negatives: money, staff, time, energy, passion, all of it is scarce. This work needs to be a mission, not just a job. They say, "Think positive." Positive is basically when the audience likes the movie—if they feel good, if they're glad they saw it.

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