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Nelson Algren: The End Is Nothing, the Road Is All (DVD Review)

21 Mar, 2016 By: Mike Clark

First Run
$24.95 DVD
Not rated.

Nelson Algren is probably best known to non-literary movie folk for the screen versions of The Man With the Golden Arm (which helped bust the Production Code) and A Walk on the Wild Side — though the latter film (which scrapped the “A” in its title) isn’t much, offering little beyond an imagination-stirrer for anyone who ever dreamed of walking on the wild side with the 1962 Jane Fonda. But at least one enthusiast called Algren the “Dostoevsky of American literature” — and the run he had before he and his literary reputation fell apart for awhile included Arm, which won the very first National Book Award ever given for fiction. It was Eleanor Roosevelt, in fact, who presented it to him, though you have to wonder if its dope addict/street vagrant milieu was anything she cared to get all warm and cuddly with in her study. If so, it didn’t come up in last year’s Ken Burns portrait.

Three directors are credited to this Algren documentary, which, though filmed in start-and-stop fashion over many years, plays seamlessly enough to present satisfying, if inevitably melancholy, look-back. Mark Blottner began the process with some recorded interviews in the ’90s, then left things alone for give-take a decade before shooting some more and then getting the on-screen result completed with Denis Mueller and Ilko Davidov. The best known of these subjects were Algren friends Kurt Vonnegut and Studs Terkel, and it adds a lot to the film that the insights of both were preserved before their respective deaths a little less than a decade ago.

A product of Chicago through and through, Algren graduated from college (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) as the worst of the Great Depression was hitting — just missing the serving of some serious “time” in Texas when a good lawyer enlisted the jury’s sympathy after the budding writer stole a typewriter he desperately needed. Algren had, however, already served several months awaiting trial, and the experience seems to have cemented his relationship with life’s downtrodden, which would include pimps, prostitutes, addicts and general outcasts. Predictably, this didn’t do much to cementing him to the chamber of commerce types in Chicago (the homeland to which he quickly returned), with 1951’s published essay Chicago: A City on the Make being an example of an extensively drubbed work (at the time) that is now revered by locals and even more.

To my eye, Algren looked like a writer — and despite his marriages (two to the same woman), he maintained a spartan existence in sync with his chosen subject matter and even with our sentimental fantasies on how a muckraking author should live. His shabbier apartments were likely mandated to some extent by his changes in fortune, which appear to have been a product of inspirational dry-up (or prolonged writer’s block); an ability to change with the times; and also hounding from the FBI, which kept one of those doorstop files on him. There was nothing all that concrete on his record, but you didn’t get too far in the ’50s by loudly speaking up for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

As a result, his passport was seized, which means he couldn’t continue his famous relationship with predominantly France-based existentialist philosopher/writer Simone de Beauvoir, who was juggling him romantically with Jean-Paul Sartre (somehow you knew she wouldn’t be dating Leo Gorcey). Algren didn’t treat women very well, but this union seems to have been special, and it likely compounded a funk he was already in over the slicker ways that publishing and society in general were evolving. You have to wonder, for instance, how the Playboy Mansion (when it was located in Chicago) fit into his personal vision of the city.

Contributing to Algren’s falling fortunes was a bad gambling habit, and Vonnegut tells of their joint time in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when his friend went through his small salary (and that of his wife, who’d also landed employment in the drama department) by playing cards with the locals; he didn’t stop to think that any local “action” would involve people who’d been playing together for years (the local Pontiac dealer is one of the examples Vonnegut uses). In a similar delusion we hear about here, Algren thought he’d be able to finagle a lot more than the $15,000 he got for the movie rights to Arms out of the film’s producer-director. Out of … Otto Preminger? Good luck on that one, and none was forthcoming.

This documentary is good enough to put me (I’m guessing) on at least a minor Algren kick, and I spent a while yesterday trying to figure out where I’d put the paperback of Arm that I’ve had for 30-40 years. The DVD bonus section includes an on-camera Chicago radio interview with Mueller and Davidov, which gives weight to the funny but sad things Louis C.K. was saying about the plight of documentary filmmakers on the recent Oscarcast. The three principals are sitting at a table (and with a mike in the middle) that barely looks large enough for Room star Jason Tremblay to sit by himself enjoying a Tastee Freez.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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