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.
What is important with respect to Al's
and no doubt a bunch of other people are concerned with-is his
I don't mean legacy in any grand sense of the word.
is not a war hero or a great political leader.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
has been compared to all manner of saints and sinners in his
half-century at the wheel of his
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 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
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.
and I were lodging with one Achmet Tas, a thirty-five-year-old Turk who smokes nonstop, and exhales opinions with each breath.
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.
, 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
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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