Photos by Caitlin Abrams
Al Milgrom of Minneapolis
Every film buff in the Twin Cities thinks they know Al Milgrom. His name is immortalized as a Coen brothers movie character (Inside Llewyn Davis), a tribute that conveys what most Twin Cities film fans already know: There’s a ghost in the machine of local indie film, and it’s the person who made the phone calls that brought film prints here for more than 50 years.
As founder and director of the University of Minnesota’s Film Society in 1962, Al was the driving force behind the organization until 2012. His face is familiar to many, standing in the front of an auditorium, peering from a wilderness of white hair through Beat-era thick black-rimmed eyeglasses at a sheaf of notes to tell film fans some important details about the movie that was about to be screened. Shuffling through his notes, squinting to read his own writing, he would commend the crowd for coming to see these movies. He would talk about why the films were important—the French New Wave classics, the symbolic and coded missives made behind the Iron Curtain, the American Direct Cinema fly-on-the-wall documentaries. His instincts about what was important were spot on, every time.
Now in his 90s, Milgrom has no interest in resting on his laurels. This year at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, which Milgrom was a founder of in 1981, Minnesota’s film buff emeritus will debut a feature-length documentary, The Dinkytown Uprising. The movie is an astonishing look at the 40-day occupation of Dinkytown by university students during the height of anti-Vietnam demonstrations. (The film will premiere April 12 at the St. Anthony Main Theatre.) Young activists occupied buildings targeted for demolition to make way for a new fast-food restaurant. The movie also reveals the ensnaring mysteries of life, in which thousands of moments accrete around a human in both expected and wholly startling ways. For instance, one of the profiled young idealists used that Dinkytown experience as a springboard for a life fighting for social justice for gay and women’s rights. Her brother, on the other hand, was a leader of the protesters at the time and later became a conservative Catholic fighting for Lucifer to be recognized as a real being and for the world to see homosexuality as evil. Another protester became a property-less global spiritual vagabond, captured on film just before he left to join Hare Krishnas and have his body branded with hot irons.
The movie contains footage Milgrom shot and processed in 1970, then kept in his basement. It’s a fascinating film, but it begs an even larger question: Who exactly is this Al Milgrom we think we know? I met Milgrom for lunch in his favorite Dinkytown restaurant, Kafé 421, and found out a number of surprising facts about the most important film advocate in our state’s history.
Al Milgrom was born a sort of Russian refugee in situ. He was conceived in Warsaw, Poland, to Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrants who fled the aftershocks of the Kishinev pogrom, in which Jews were massacred in the part of Russia that is now Moldova. His parents settled in Pine City, Minnesota, on Highway 61 made famous by Bob Dylan, and opened a clothing and tailor shop called Milgrom’s. Milgrom grew up in Pine City, speaking Yiddish and Russian at home, catching rides on the horse-drawn sleds that farmers rode to town on the weekends to do their marketing. On Saturday afternoons he watched B-picture Westerns, especially those featuring Ken Maynard, Bob Steele, and Hoot Gibson, at the town theater. “We’d come out of there so excited, I remember taking one of my pals and just throwing him over my shoulder onto the sidewalk—I’m lucky I didn’t break his arm,” Milgrom recalls. “The one thing nobody seems to remember about small towns in the 20s and 30s [is that] they were just crowded on a Saturday. Every farmer’s family came in to shop, the country towns would be packed.”
When Milgrom returned from the movies to his parents’ shop, he would find a crowd of men gathered, reading his father’s copy of the Jewish Daily Forward, and tracking the war news. The Milgroms periodically drove down to Minneapolis to Brochin’s Deli to shop for rye bread and dried fish to send to their starving relatives in Russia. War in Europe hung over Milgrom during his youth. He was 18 and a freshman at the University of Minnesota, living in a rooming house with a bunch of other Pine City boys when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He remembers going with hundreds of other students to Northrop Auditorium to hear Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio response; it was a day that would go down in infamy for college freshmen, too. Milgrom was a chemistry major at the time, and he enrolled in the Air Corps but didn’t get called for duty until his third year at the U of M. It was while he was in the Pacific on a ship destined to replenish combat units that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
While stationed in the Philippines, Milgrom fell in love with Ena, a Russian ballerina. “I’ll never know if she married me as a quick way out of Manila,” Milgrom says. For the next several years, the newlyweds hopped around the globe looking for a place to make her happy; first San Francisco, then to Australia where Milgrom wrote for different trade papers, including The Australian Junior Farmer. And Paris soon followed. “I spent six months in Paris reading the paper in the morning [looking for a job] and going to movies in the afternoon.” That was when the French New Wave worked its way under his skin. Milgrom and the ballerina parted ways after she fell for a Spaniard named Juan. (“He was a real nice guy,” Milgrom says.) Milgrom then married a Dutch student named Jeanette, and the couple returned to the U of M, where Milgrom took advantage of the GI Bill.
“I started the Film Society out of starvation for what was happening outside of Minneapolis,” he says. He didn’t do it alone; one of the early volunteers taking tickets at the door was young Cindy Palmer, now known as Cynthia Horowitz, mother of Winona Ryder. The film screenings were a hobby—Milgrom earned his keep by working at the university, at one point as a teaching assistant to the late poet John Berryman who was teaching in the humanities department.
“He had a formidable personality,” Milgrom says of Berryman. “I was not among his student habitués. Mainly how I remember him is as the person who would call me up at two o’clock in the morning, heavily in his cups, to say there was no way he would make it to class the next day, and would I take over? So I’d hang up the phone and then stay up all night reading my old textbooks on Socratic dialogs.” Last year Milgrom finished a short film on Berryman, largely created from footage he found when the university’s audio-visual department disbanded. Milgrom doesn’t have many regrets, but not filming Berryman was one of them. “In the 1960s I was always too timid to ask,” he says. “He had such a strong and loud voice. I wish I had got that, the way his voice carried down the corridors of Ford Hall, you could hear him at such a great distance.”
But Milgrom was comfortable filming war protestors who occupied the buildings destined to be demolished for the Red Barn. Logistically, capturing the footage was easy, Milgrom says, because he walked by the protesters’ encampment twice a day as he went through Dinkytown from his home to the University of Minnesota campus. Dinkytown was much different then, he says. There were grocery stores, bookstores, drug stores; it was a busy little town where visiting lecturers (Saul Bellow), teachers (Walter Mondale), students (Bob Dylan), and young characters of every stripe (see the movie) mingled every day. “People use the word ‘community’ too much today,” Milgrom says, “but it was a very unique busy community, if you looked down the street you knew you were exactly there and no where else on earth.”
Milgrom’s next documentary is already in the works. It focuses on Czech life on the Iron Range, and he plans to edit the movie himself, preparing by taking digital editing classes at the Independent Filmmaker Project. “If I don’t learn to edit now, when am I going to?”
Reflecting on his life, he continues, “It was a dramatic century, my century. My father was in the Tsar’s army. We watched Charlie Chaplin movies in Hinckley.” Milgrom notes that Andy Warhol was of his generation, and came from the same sort of war-torn Russia that he did. Is there something about Americans with that particular pedigree that makes them particularly prone to watching, sharing, and communicating in popular visual idiom? Milgrom thinks so, and believes, too, that the 21st century will be the one where we get to see what comes out of his lifetime of global adventure, both lived and screened.