Elegy for Al Milgrom, the Soul of Minnesota Cinema

Al Milgrom poses with a poster for Singin' in the Grain
Al Milgrom poses with the poster for his film “Singin’ in the Grain.” (via AlMilgromFilms.com)

Sometimes my job involved being a passenger in Al Milgrom’s decrepit Volvo, not because he needed assistance with the delivery, but because he needed an extra body to be allowed in the carpool lane. I’d buckle in and hunch down as this 78-year-madman barreled down the interstate with classical music swelling on the radio, flipping off truckers who dared get in his way as he raced for the airport post office, desperate to get two film canisters containing a Hungarian coming-of-age movie on a plane to the Karlovy-Vary film festival in time for its next scheduled screening. 

This was life as an employee of Al Milgrom, a constant whirlpool of tightly scheduled chaos that sucked in every bright-eyed cinephile who came within reach of its vortex. Those of us who didn’t drown came out on the other side with a working knowledge of things nobody teaches you in film school. 

I first met Al when I walked into the office of University Film Society in the fall of 1998 to inquire about an administrative position I’d found on the University of Minnesota’s student job board. I don’t know who I expected to meet there, but it certainly wasn’t Al, a wiry, stooped old man in a torn flannel shirt, sporting thick glasses and a silver mane reminiscent of Beethoven. He came bustling out of a back room stacked halfway to the ceiling with papers and file folders and immediately asked me if I was any relation to “the North Branch Brookers.” I said yes, my dad grew up in North Branch, a small town about 45 minutes north of Minneapolis. Al said he had run track meets against a Louie Brooker in high school. I was impressed by the recall, even though neither my grandpa nor any of his brothers was named Louie. I assumed Al had just gotten a detail wrong until I related the story to my aunt and was told that my grandpa Hank was indeed nicknamed “Louie” in his younger days. 

This too was life as an employee of Al Milgrom, a state of constant wonder at a mind that retained the tiny minutiae of every personal encounter, every cinematic credit, and every moviegoing experience over eight action-packed decades. (At the risk of sounding immodest, I have a pretty remarkable head for trivia myself, but I certainly can’t recall the names of guys I played basketball against in high school 20 years ago, let alone the 60 years between Al’s varsity track days and our first meeting.) That Al’s was also a mind that could throw the entire organization into chaos by misplacing a checkbook or double-booking a screening venue only added to the mystique. 

While I loved movies before I started working for Al — it’s why I wanted the job in the first place — I learned to love movies in a different way under his tutelage. I’ve seen some other remembrances touting Al’s love of cinema, but I don’t know if that description does justice to the relationship. Al didn’t just love cinema, Al was cinema. The world of international film enveloped him like an aura, manifesting in his every public action and statement. I can’t imagine Al Milgrom existing without the movies, and for half a century it was impossible to imagine movies in the Twin Cities without Al Milgrom.

Al launched University Film Society in the late 1960s and built it into a strange, perilously rickety cornerstone of the Midwestern arts scene. Some artists — and make no mistake, Al ran his business as an artist, for better and for worse — would have been satisfied with establishing the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, a sprawling event that put obscure and incomparable films from every corner of the globe in the local spotlight for two mayhem-driven weeks each year. There were bigger festivals in the world at the time, but I would argue that there were very few that could match MSPIFF for breadth and inclusion, and a huge percentage of those films were procured primarily through Al’s efforts. 

From a profitability standpoint, it probably would have made sense to focus entirely on that event and its various spin-offs like the Film Society’s annual Jewish, LGBT, and Czech film festivals. But Al was insistent on filling the calendar with screenings all year long, spending hours on the phone harassing the local media with demands that they review whatever ultra-niche nature documentary or Scandinavian thriller we had booked that week. And if said media people gave those films negative reviews, or worse, praised them for the wrong reasons, Al was back on the phone to lace into them about what he perceived as their galling ignorance, demanding a new review that he knew no one would ever grant him. His near-weekly verbal sparring matches with equally mercurial City Pages film editor Rob Nelson were epic battles that we staffers would eavesdrop on with eager grins.

Al was not the easiest person to work for, with, or near. His vitriol was by no means reserved for the press. I, for whatever reason, found favor in his eyes and was never subjected to the worst of his tongue-lashings. Most of the people in my orbit were not so lucky. As one of my more briefly tenured co-workers put it, at any given time Al might be outraged that the office was out of paperclips or that the film due to screen that evening was being held up by a Canadian customs agent, and both crises held equal weight in his eyes. 

Passions almost always ran high in the University Film Society office, but that’s exactly what they were: passions. Al believed in what we did at UFS with all his heart. It angered him when our screenings of, say, the Chinese children’s drama The King of Masks drew a fraction of the audience that the latest Disney blockbuster brought out to the multiplex, because he believed that he was offering the world something better, something more nourishing, or at least something different than what was being hand-delivered to them by Hollywood marketing teams. It hurt him when the public rejected the gifts he worked so diligently to offer them, and he lashed out accordingly at the media, his staff, and the general state of cinema in the United States. But he never stopped offering.

I don’t want to paint Al as some kind of raging office tyrant. For all of his short temper, at his core he was a kind and doting steward of the arts and a nurturing mentor to myself and my colleagues. He definitely scared off a few staffers and probably alienated some sponsors over the years, but most people in his realm realized that the flare-ups burned out quickly and that the charming, driven, dutiful servant of cinema always remained. Al was also forward-thinking enough to know that he was not the be-all, end-all of independent cinema. He greenlit personal projects outside his realm of experience, like the Tibetan and Persian film festivals proposed and curated by UFS volunteers from those respective countries, or Sound Unseen, an annual indie music film fest launched by my co-worker Nate that’s still running today.

We twentysomethings relished his years of knowledge and anecdotes from a life lived in the backs of movie theaters around the world. We awaited his dispatches from Rotterdam and Berlin and Toronto, where he traveled every year to seek out new obscurities to share with the Minnesotans back home. We knew that this wild-eyed, wry-witted, one-of-a-kind old man always had our backs, even if we cursed him under our breaths when he sent us back to Kinkos for the fourth time that day to make minor tweaks to a promotional flyer for a movie that would be seen by no more than a couple dozen people. 

We knew that we were in the presence of a true rarity, an artist so deeply wedded to his art form that they served as vessels unto each other. It came as no surprise to me that when Al was finally convinced to step down from piloting the Film Society in his 80s, he immersed himself immediately in filmmaking and completed two feature-length documentaries at the ages of 93 and 96 respectively. Reports say he was actively working on his third when he died yesterday at 98.

When I got married just after college, Al made the six-hour round-trip drive to attend my wedding on a sweltering August day. He knew no one else in attendance save for my friend and Film Society colleague Kyle, but he cut a charming figure in the suit and tie I’d only ever seen him wear at festival openings and was a hit with all of my relatives. He brought along his photography equipment and lurked on the sidelines snapping pictures during the ceremony and the reception. Months later he mailed me a series of stunning, professional-grade black-and-white photos beyond the abilities of any photographer we could have afforded at the time. 

When I caught up with Al after the service to thank him for making the trip, he quickly diverted the conversation. He was happy to be there and offered all the expected congratulations, but what he really wanted was an introduction to my grandpa “Louie.” They had some catching up to do about the old track and field days. 

2 comments

  1. Beautiful piece. I believe you captured Al quite perfectly. As I read, I was nodding in agreement with a smile on my face. Especially the part about kinkos. I worked with Al (and Tim Grady) for many years (2005-present) and still freelance for the Film Society. Thank you for this piece.
    Tony Brown

    • Thanks so much for reading, Tony. I can’t say I’ve been exactly surprised at how much response I’ve gotten from people who were impacted by Al over the years, but it’s been gratifying to see it regardless. The man leaves a heck of a legacy.

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