University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Al Milgrom's Last Adventure

Minnesota’s prophet of film was still happily promoting his last documentaries, including one about the 1970s U of M Dinkytown uprising, when he passed away at 98.

Photo Credit: Janet Bayliss

When Al Milgrom, founder and longtime head of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Film Society, died last December at 98, the salutes flew fast and heartfelt from the pages of Twin Cities newspapers, journals, and social media accounts. He was an icon, a legend in his own time, a passionate figure who brought his love of film to the campus of the U of M. And like some wild-haired biblical prophet, he preached the gospel of world cinema to Midwesterners in Minneapolis for the rest of his life.

Most had little idea in 1962, when Milgrom founded the U of M Film Society, that great movies were being made all over the world and not just in Hollywood. Milgrom explained his decision in a mid-career interview: “There was a group here [in Minneapolis] in the early ’60s, who felt very out of it because there were things happening in film and there was very little chance to see what was going on.

“I said to myself right at the beginning, I want to see all of these films—Godard, Chabrol, Truffaut, the New Wave, all of this stuff. But to do that, I would have had to go to New York or San Francisco. And I wasn’t prepared to move. I had family here; I’d grown up here. So instead of going there, I thought, ‘bring it here.’”

Using a projector and theater space in the old Bell Museum, as well as his own boundless energy, Milgrom did just that. He began showing films to budding cinephiles within the U of M community. He scouted film festivals all over the world to find suitable movies and had them shipped to the Twin Cities. He promoted the films relentlessly with flyers he created, copied, and stapled to every available surface on campus; he wrote program notes for the films; he made countless cajoling phone calls to local film critics demanding they come see, review, and promote the movies; he took tickets; introduced the films; ran the projector. He brought famed French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard to Minneapolis, as well as Milos Forman and Werner Herzog. Milgrom became a fixture in and around campus and nearby Dinkytown, tucking flyers under one arm and lugging film cannisters with the other.

As his reputation and connections grew, Milgrom decided to found his own film festival right here in the Twin Cities. In 1983, he organized, curated, and promoted the Rivertown Film Festival, which continues to this day as the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF). As he aged, Milgrom remained a vital force in the University and Twin Cities film community, continuing to serve as a cantankerous godfather to young filmmakers and cinephiles throughout the area, who swapped stories of their encounters with him after his passing.

A graduate of the U of M and World War II vet, Milgrom was a man with a rich personal history beyond his interest in films. Born and raised in small-town Minnesota—Pine City, specifically— Milgrom’s Yiddish-speaking immigrant parents arrived after fleeing pogroms in Ukraine in the wake of World War I. His father, who had served in the Russian army of the czar in World War I, opened a tailoring business. Milgrom grew up among the largely Czech community that lived in Pine City at the time, a fact that helped inspire his special love for Czech cinema later in life.

A still from The Dinkytown Uprising above, Milgrom's 1970 documentary about a campus uprising related to redevelopment.
Photo Credit: Daniel Geiger

At the University, Milgrom began as a chemistry major, was called to duty in the army, served as a 2nd Lieutenant in a photo intelligence unit during the war, and came back to the U of M interested in photography. He graduated with a degree in journalism and soon after, began working with the San Francisco Chronicle under the tutelage of well-known journalist (and future John Kennedy White House press secretary) Pierre Salinger.

Milgrom also did newspaper stints with Stars and Stripes, the Washington Post, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press before returning to the University for a master’s degree in 1962, while working as a graduate instructor in the humanities. He taught a film studies course and spent a semester as a teaching assistant with the poet John Berryman in the English department. It was as a grad student that Milgrom founded and began his work with the Film Society—a passion that would occupy and obsess him for the next 50 years.

Late in life, Milgrom was nudged out of his role as major domo at the Minneapolis St. Paul Film Society. Instead of calling it a career and resting on his laurels, Milgrom became, in his final years, what he called “the world’s oldest emerging filmmaker.”

He had a good start; Milgrom’s early interest in photography had never really waned. At some point in the 1960s, he purchased a 35mm camera and began filming subjects that intrigued him. These included Minnesota’s Eastern European immigrant community, John Berryman, and the world of Dinkytown, where he’d spent so much of his time over the years. In 2010, when his workload at the MSP Film Society lessened, and with a basement full of footage from his years of shooting, he decided to focus on documentary movie making. He was soon working on films that would become Singing in the Grain, about the Minnesota Czech community; Remembering John Berryman, a short documentary about the Pulitzer Prize-winning U of M poet and professor; and a documentary about a student-led protest in Dinkytown in 1970 called The Dinkytown Uprising.

Even with his years of cinema experience, the transition to filmmaking was not easy. He found solid professional help from Daniel Geiger, a longtime editor and director, who had worked with numerous local and Hollywood filmmakers, including the Coen brothers and Prince. As with most of Milgrom’s relationships, it was not an easy one. “He’d never directed a film and he didn’t really know how to work with an editor,” Geiger says, “but he had a basement full of film footage that he’d shot over the years. And I helped him organize it into a coherent narrative.”

In time, Geiger actually moved into Milgrom’s house in order to help him meet some grant deadlines for the continued financing of the documentaries—particularly The Dinkytown Uprising.

Dinkytown premiered with much hoopla and celebration of Milgrom’s life and work at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival in April 2015. The story behind the uprising—of a 1970 student-led protest against the Red Barn hamburger restaurant chain and its plans to raze a couple of buildings in the heart of Dinkytown to make way for a burger joint—had particular resonance for Milgrom. Not only had he shot a substantial amount of footage at the time of the protest, but over the years, he’d done follow-up interviews with the youthful principals involved in the uprising, now aged and retrospective. “I’m really interested in what time does to historic memory,” Milgrom told an interviewer before the opening of the film.

Milgrom passing out film fliers downtown.
Photo Courtesy Daniel Geiger

In the documentary, Milgrom succeeds in capturing both the historical moment and its modern-day echo. In the process he created a vivid and compelling portrait of a time and place—Dinkytown in the early ’70s—which is fast receding in memory.

If one image is missing from the film, it might be that of a young Al Milgrom, striding down 14th toward the old Bell Museum with his flyers and film canisters in hand.

Tim Brady is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities area.

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