Taking it All In

Reel men: U Film lovers Bill Breer (left) and Brian Donovan
Daniel Corrigan

"Remember when Pauline Kael was here that time? Was it 1964, '65?"

Brian Donovan, age 59, is sipping a whiskey at Whitey's in Northeast, preparing to launch into one of many anecdotes from his life as a film addict and longtime devotee of both the U Film Society and its Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival (formerly known as the Rivertown Film Festival). Donovan and his old friend Bill Breer, age 63, have been at the University for about 40 years--first as grad students, then in jobs (Donovan as a composition teacher, Breer as a buyer for the bookstore). But by night they've known sexier pleasures: watching movies, mainly, and sharing drinks and debates with illustrious filmmakers, critics, and U Film Society czar Al Milgrom.

Both men have seen thousands of movies and watched local film festivals and film societies come and go. ("I've seen two or three movies a week since the age of five," Donovan confesses.) It's a year-round obsession, with Milgrom's festival as its centerpiece: Donovan sees roughly a dozen movies during each two-week festival, while Breer packs in about 40. Both feel an urgency about catching flicks when they can: "We're the only two people in the country who don't have VCRs," Donovan admits with a resigned chuckle. "We go to theaters."

Being a film fanatic has had its costs and its rewards--the latter often coming in the form of good gossip. "One of the times Pauline Kael came to speak at the U," Donovan continues, "I said to her afterwards, 'You know, Pauline, it's Academy Awards night,' and she said, 'Oh yeah? I've gotta get away, this is really boring--can we watch them at your house?' My friends and I had a crummy little apartment in Southeast. [Kael] liked to pop a few drinks, so we sat there nailing a few Irish whiskeys and watching the Oscars. She knew all the inside shit on everybody--whose career was up, whose was down, who was screwing whom, who was owned by the Mafia. Not Frank Sinatra--she liked him. 'He gets a bum rap,' she used to say. She was a very generous, pleasant person--if she liked you."

According to Breer and Donovan, local film buffs have had several havens over the years: the Circle For the Liveliest Art in the early '60s, the Xanadu Film Society in the '70s, the Newman Film Society in the mid-'60s (which Donovan co-founded), and the 1981 Minneapolis Film Festival, which was followed in '82 by Milgrom's first local fest, Rivertown, in Stillwater.

"But the U Film Society was really the main venue for seeing films--foreign films--from the '60s through the mid-'80s," says Donovan. "Al still brings in the things that nobody else will." Unfortunately, the heavyweight auteurs don't come around accompanying their films like they used to. "Al has had virtually everyone in European film come through town," says Donovan. "Godard has been here several times, Josef von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray, Milos Forman, Werner Herzog, Jan Troell, Liv Ullmann, and Max von Sydow."

In earlier days, post-film discussions were a prelude to late-night bull sessions, like one in the early '80s at which Breer and Donovan met Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov (A Slave of Love). "His luggage was filled with vodka bottles and tennis rackets," Donovan remembers. "And there was a commissar there with him who was supposed to make sure he didn't defect. But mostly they'd just sit around drinking and laughing. They were in this really crummy little hotel [now the Econo Lodge on University]. It's all Al had the money for."

"After the films," Breer recalls, "Al would say, 'Do you want to come by for a couple drinks?' People would come and just sit around and talk. Sometimes we'd get into the specifics of the film, but a lot of times, if [the directors] had other interests, they enjoyed, you know, talking about tennis or something, rather than another question on why the camera angle was this way."

Donovan and Breer have never forgotten the shock of seeing legendary French director Abel Gance (Napoleon) in person in 1981. "He was in his 90s," says Donovan, "and he showed up to look at a couple of his movies he hadn't seen in 40 or 50 years. That was very strange. Here was this guy, who was a contemporary of D.W. Griffith, still alive." "He came with two young girls helping him [on each arm]," says Breer. "It was odd. He had Al show one film again because his wife, who had died many years before, was in this film and he wanted to see it again." Gance died a few months later.

Then there was the time three state senators--whom Milgrom terms "Christian right types," including one "Holy Ole"--stormed into a screening of Pasolini's Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom and tried to arrest Milgrom. "He claimed it was child pornography or something," Donovan laughs. "It was absurd."

After so many years, Breer and Donovan admit that films don't affect them as deeply as they once did, partly because both were radicalized by the cinema of their youth. Donovan was living in Paris in 1959, the year the French New Wave broke. "No directors since Godard and Antonioni and Bergman have ever made me feel they were shaping the way I was reacting to so-called real life," he says. Breer once went to see Truffaut's love-triangle classic Jules and Jim--unwarned--in the company of a male friend and a woman they were both seeing. "We went drinking afterwards, avoiding the topic."

And how do their families feel about their obsession? Breer, a widower, is dating a fellow U Film fan, a friend of 30 years. And Donovan? "I'm single. Ms. Right never came along. Or if she did, I didn't see her. I was at the movies."

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