Let’s begin by getting one fact clear: Al Milgrom, the Twin Cities’ most famous fool for cinema, is an old man. His driver’s license makes the bold claim that he was born in 1922—a claim belied by both his appearance, for he doesn’t look a day over sixty-five, and his behavior, for he acts like a teenager. But even without the state’s corroboration, Al is old by anyone’s reckoning.
Yet, someday, even Mel Gibson will get old. What is important with respect to Al’s age—what he and no doubt a bunch of other people are concerned with—is his legacy. I don’t mean legacy in any grand sense of the word. Al is not a war hero or a great political leader. But he single-handedly has run the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival throughout most of its twenty-three-year history, and founded the U Film Society, likely before you were born. He may make legitimate claims to a meaningful legacy in the city he has called home for the better part of his eighty-three years, inasmuch as it would be a different place were it not for his obsessions, which, as obsessions should, have infected the civic body, mostly for the good. “Al is the godfather of the alternative film movement—people have heard of him everywhere,” said one veteran of the art-film scene recently in Berlin, where I accompanied Al just months after reporting for duty as his underling.
Of course, no legacy is complete without blots, smears, and plenty of broken eggs. A film festival is a big omelette, and the fish tales of Al’s, shall we say, unbridled passions are as bountiful as spring rain. Al has yelled at, pissed off, and obliquely threatened a good half of this city. But such behavior always comes in the service of his attempts to pry this place open, to peel away its provinciality like the skin from a tangerine. One myth-become-legend has it that he called Bill Kling, president of Minnesota Public Radio, at his home one Sunday at midnight (Al is quite the night owl) to berate him about the lack of radio coverage for a foreign film he’d deemed both excellent and exceedingly important. I don’t know how true the tale is—Al does possess an uncanny ability to ferret out rare phone numbers—but a cursory glance at the logos on festival catalogs from years past evidences an abrupt absence of MPR sponsorship beginning in 2001. At any rate, as in the movies, we should take the tale as a character-defining scene. You may envision Al Milgrom as John Wayne, if it helps.
Al has been compared to all manner of saints and sinners in his half-century at the wheel of his cinematic jalopy. Those who love him—and they do, honestly, speak of love—see him as a beacon on the vast prairie. They recall how he once drove a confused Jean-Luc Godard around this most un-continental of cities, introducing him to the important film folk of Minneapolis, who, by Al’s calculus, included a local Iranian coffee vendor and the projectionist at the U Film Society. Those who are less than fond call Al “a little Nazi”—pointed criticism, considering that he is Jewish.
Clearly, Al is someone who inspires more opinion than understanding. Plenty of people know that what he does either floats their boats or punches big holes in the bottoms of them. What fewer know—and perhaps, ultimately, it is unknowable—is why Al has persisted for so long in his voyage on less-than-smooth seas in what may only be described as a leaky craft. (The U Film Society, which in 2002 merged with Oak Street Arts to become Minnesota Film Arts, is no Walker Art Center.) Perhaps the only way to know such things is to view Al in his natural habitat.
It was February and I was in Potsdamer Platz, at the heart of a reborn Berlin, drinking beer with Al at midnight during that city’s esteemed film festival. Everyone seemed to have come down to this strange new center of town, a glass and aluminum gleam built on Japanese capital in the irrational, heady days of a newly reunified country. This year’s Berlin International Film Festival, which has become Potsdamer Platz’ most visible and anticipated event, was a monster: more than three hundred films unspooling in a mere ten days on some forty screens within several hundred yards of each other. An earth-sized disco ball hung over the cobblestone plaza in the middle of it all, sending shards of light far into the pedestrian side streets, where they stabbed the eyes of passersby exiting the murk of the cinema.
The bar was packed with smoking, drinking Berliners, and it was loud like an airplane. Al and I were lodging with one Achmet Tas, a thirty-five-year-old Turk who smokes nonstop, and exhales opinions with each breath. Al met Achmet a few years ago at another bar in Berlin, and now sleeps on his couch in exchange for supplying him with an official “Advisor to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival” credit, which loosens the doors for Achmet at various festival parties and screenings. Al, perennially late in organizing his own industry credentials, was ironically attending as a correspondent for the Pulse.
One thing became immediately clear in the few days that I spent with Al in Berlin, and that was that I was seeing his idealized self, the man he aspires to be. Not that he fancies himself European, or is a heavy drinker and smoker. It was more a matter of Al’s easy comfort with the essential randomness of a film festival. Film festivals are about people meeting for intense bursts of opinion broken up by hours and hours spent alone in the dark. And this is the world in which Al thrives. Myopic by nature, Al has the uncanny ability to be completely ignorant of what is going on around him, provided there is a film to talk about. His body language has been honed by forty years of such behavior: his elegantly long fingers are frozen in an eternal jab, his head leans forever slightly forward to engage in argument, and a wide-brimmed hat serves as shield from whatever irrelevant chaos might be erupting around him. In cinematic terms, one can easily see Al debating the merits of some new European film as, in the background, Hollywood-style, one car careens off the hood of another, twisting into the air and crashing in an exploding heap behind Al just as he wraps up his critique with his favorite phrase, “It didn’t work for me.”
Al in Europe, then, is Al at home, even when he is staying on someone’s couch—it was a nicely made-up couch, too, with sheets washed in that headily scented German detergent. Achmet played a better host than one might have expected (the only items in his fridge were candy). Everyone stayed up long past midnight most nights, when we all bumped into each other in the smoke-filled CinemaxX Lounge after a solid twelve hours of film-watching. The odd-couple companionship of Al and Achmet was arresting, as Al’s subdued but dogged arguments were for once overwhelmed, by Achmet’s manic pontifications. As he grew frustrated with Achmet’s bellicosity, Al began to insert a telltale phrase, “Lookit,” at the start of every opinion. “Lookit, the main character is drawn sketchy, there’s no motivation to her! I just thought it was weak.” To which Achmet, more impassioned still, responded, “Al, you are not right in this one, and I will tell you why…”
Back in Minneapolis, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (now affectionately dubbed M-SPIFF) was beginning to shake to life. The days were lengthening, everyone on staff was getting sick, and Al was nowhere to be found. He’d left his bag on Achmet’s floor—a bag that contained all his festival contact information and film selections—and was chasing it by telephone through U.S. customs in Mobile, Alabama. We were only a few days from our deadline for bookings, and there was a score of titles that Al insisted he had secured, which we were dubiously trying to corral. (Al Milgrom’s “yes” is equal to anyone else’s “maybe.”) But no matter. Over the next few days, the festival would grow by leaps and bounds, extracting a pound of flesh for every title secured.
The legacy of a man obsessed with foreign film—Al is old-school, and has little fondness for the Sundance phenomenon—M-SPIFF is a curious cultural creature. For one, it is not a slick operation by any stretch of the imagination. Where other U.S. festivals revel in artifice and manufactured glamour, Al’s monologue has, for the better part of its twenty-three years, taken the opposite approach. For example, Al’s gift-of-choice to last year’s guest of honor, Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell, was a mallard decoy. One gets the sense that he is as blind to the glamour of film as he is to anything that is not bouncing off the silver screen.
This is a great blessing. Film people, frankly, are among the worst on the planet. Shallow and self-aggrandizing, they exist for the most part in a marshmallow world, where no interaction is devoid of some perfume being blown up your bum, no matter who you are. Titles, prestige, and the patina of importance are the currency of the film festival industry, and it is a currency that increasingly attracts a vulgar element. As the perception of merit spills off the screen onto irrelevant things like parties, tote bags bearing logos, and Roger Ebert’s banal omnipresence, the essential goodness of the film program itself is perforce lost.
Al’s incredible myopia—his inability to be motivated by anything more or less complex than whether or not a film “worked for me”—is, then, at the heart of his persistence. For there is always something out there that does, in fact, work for him, and even as an old man, he is dogged in seeking it out. That these films are often found on continents where drinking too much coffee and coming to work late are perfectly acceptable behaviors is, of course, a perk, but the driving force is what is and what might be on screen.
Yet, for all the strength of its program, M-SPIFF as a civic event can, will, and must change. The world demands as much. It must grow up, and play the games that adults play. It is a bittersweet proposition. No one relishes practicing the machinations of festival power: attempting to sabotage the Tribeca Film Festival with secret premieres, or tricking some Polish film outfit into sending a filmmaker without telling them how far from Chicago Minneapolis truly is. But the festival world is increasingly driven by money, just like everything else, and money breeds distraction. It is sad to witness: the barnacles of industry are slowly encrusting all festivals, and whether for good or for bad, M-SPIFF is destined to join the fray, just like everyone else.
Al seems resigned to the changing times, to these new processes. Curiously, the great tantrums that I had been promised when I came to Minnesota Film Arts have not materialized. On the contrary, Al seems quite relaxed and amused these days—even humble. Of course, arguments about films erupt daily, and happily, voices rise and tempers flare. “There is no way we are playing that film!” leads to, “Lookit, it’s a good film! You didn’t like it, but it’s won major awards, it has a name talent—if we can get it into the Latvian press, get it out to the Latvian restaurants, it will do well!” and so on. Al still manages to listen to nobody about anything that is not an opinion on film; everything he says, in turn, is filtered through a rather fantastical lens, part optimism, part outright deception. But at the end of the day, the films still come, discovered by Al during some sixteen-hour viewing session in the Czech Republic’s Karlovy Vary, or another far corner of the world.
I once asked Al how he got into this line of work. Many years ago, he had been a journalist, a stringer for the Washington Post, and the Berlin-based editor of—believe it or not—Stars & Stripes, the U.S. military newspaper. “I was going to grad school at the U for a Ph.D.,” he explained, “and I just sort of started showing movies. I think the first film was a Buñuel title.” I asked him about that abandoned Ph.D., and he shrugged it off. “I was going to do sociology, because it seemed easy. But you see, I always thought I would just do the film stuff for a while, but it sort of took over. It was a lot of fun, really.” When asked why he keeps going, he insisted it’s merely because he needs a job. “I only have about fifteen hundred dollars saved up, you know,” he said. “I have to keep busy.” But there’s more to it than that. Over the years, he’s been offered retirement packages in return for giving up control of the festival. Yet he refuses. Even when he did, once, temporarily retire, Al couldn’t stand it. He broke into his locked office with a crowbar.
Maybe the question is, why wouldn’t he want to keep going, flitting around the globe, discussing the one thing he cares about most? The solace of selecting, watching, and then sharing good films is what he lives for. When I pressed Al a little harder on the matter of retirement, he looked at me quizzically, as though I was the understudy waiting for him to fall down the stairs, à la Showgirls. Then he turned back to the phone to argue with a Dutch distributor about a fantastic Indonesian documentary, The Shape of the Moon, which he caught at Rotterdam, turned me on to, and which will play in Minneapolis as part of this year’s film festival.