The 25th Hour

Ryan Heshka

EVERY YEAR, AL MILGROM AND HIS FELLOW PROGRAMMERS at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (M-SPIFF) wait until the last minute to announce the entrees in their latest world-cinema smorgasbord. This year, they waited until a few hours after the last minute—and then they waited a few more days. They waited so long that many local film lovers began to wonder whether the M-SPIFF might not happen this spring, whether it might not happen at all.

In the absence of details, there was no shortage of doubt. Would Milgrom's recovery from his recent bypass surgery be complete enough to permit him his customary schedule of 20-hour workdays? Would the well-reported financial woes of Minnesota Film Arts (MFA), the M-SPIFF's nonprofit parent, be too gigantic to allow even a downsized fest to get its reels spinning? Would MFA's board of directors sell the Oak Street Cinema to real estate developers in order to balance the books and deliver the M-SPIFF? Would board treasurer Tim Grady's personal contributions to MFA's debt relief buy him immunity from criticism in the wake of key staff members' acrimonious departures?

Finally: Would a beleaguered board and an almost entirely new staff be willing and able to mount an M-SPIFF in record time?

The answer to this last question is, incredibly, yes. Moreover, Milgrom has informed me that this year's lineup of 130 films from 40 countries is stronger than any in the festival's history—a claim I believe I've heard him make in each of the last dozen years.

Thus the M-SPIFF is, in at least one way, the same as it ever was. Grady, who sounds energized by the belated completion of programming last week, says the festival is "rock solid" and "here to stay," that it'll remain an annual event in the spring despite ample rumors that he has been angling to move it to the fall. He says that after this year's festival is over at the end of the month, he'll answer the local film community's call for repertory cinema to resume at Oak Street, if not necessarily under the direction of the theater's co-founder Robert Cowgill and his many passionate supporters.

Some of these passionate supporters have even been heard to call for a boycott of the M-SPIFF, feeling that MFA's choice to push ahead with a massive program of new films is irresponsible in the absence of a convincing plan for how to treat the old ones. Milgrom acknowledges that this year's M-SPIFF may not be attended by the hundreds of Oak Street loyalists who recently packed the Varsity Theater to pledge their financial support of Cowgill's proposal: to help relieve MFA's debt if the organization would agree to cede control of the theater to a new board of committed rep-lovers. Nevertheless, Milgrom's message to Cowgill's supporters is: "Just tell us what you want to see [at Oak Street] and we'll play it." Milgrom insists that the way to support Oak Street's original mission is to support the current owners of the theater—by supporting their festival.

Alas, that decision remains a tough one for some of us in the local film community. But hey—why decide now? As programming of this festival has always been finalized at the last minute or later, so could be your plans to attend. While you're settling on your approach to the next 10 days, we offer the following for your consideration: a rundown of the recent gathering at the Varsity ("A Little Song, a Little Dance..."); a "12-pack" of M-SPIFF movies we like a lot; a preview of the festival's "Childish" sidebar of movies for kids ("For the Four-Year-Old Pauline Kael"); a profile of Twin Cities-based director Ali Selim ("The Promised Land"), whose Sweet Land screens at the fest on closing night; and a transcript of my recent chat with Al Franken ("I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and, Doggonnit, People Like Me"), who'll be at the Riverview Theater on Thursday at 7:00 p.m. to introduce the opening night M-SPIFF screening of the bio-doc Al Franken: God Spoke.

As befits the troubled times, perhaps, uncertainty is the only sure thing here. Even if you should choose to come to God, you'll still have to grapple with the question of who's the star of the show. One tip: You can call him Al.

—Rob Nelson, film editor, City Pages

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