Review: Nelson Algren’s Documentary Pays Delayed Tribute to ‘Division’s Dostoevsky Street’


Michael Caplan’s documentary on Nelson Algren is a love letter to the gritty Chicago of the past as well as a tribute to Algren, perhaps America’s most underrated author.

Caplan does an effective job of storytelling, painting a picture of the Chicago where Algren lived (on Wabansia Avenue and later on Evergreen Street in the depressed Polish neighborhood known as Polonia, now trendy Wicker Park) with a vast assortment of archival footage of Algren and his people; most of the photos are by Algren’s friend Art Shay, a Chicago photographer who photographed for Life Magazine. The footage is accompanied by quickly edited interview clips from locals such as Studs Terkel, Shay, Rick Kogan, Bill Savage and Billy Corgan and a list of filmmakers including William Friedkin, John Sayles, Philip Kaufman and Kat Tatlock, and of friends, men and women. . Algren himself appears in some end-of-life interviews; he died in 1981 at age 72. Chicago actor David Pasquesi narrates and voices Algren’s lyrics.

Music by Wayne Kramer, founder of Detroit proto-punk and metal band MC5, adds an edgy, edgy sonic vibe to the story of a writer often described as the voice of drunks, pimps, prostitutes, freaks, drug addicts and hoodlums. (Bookseller Stuart Brent called him the Dostoevsky of Division Street.) Caplan became acquainted with Kramer as a potential collaborator in part because of his 2002 song, “Nelson Algren passed.”

Caplan’s story is punctuated by Algren’s three rules of life:

  • Never play cards with a man named Doc.
  • Never eat at a place called Mom’s.
  • Never sleep with a woman whose problems are worse than yours.

The film is more or less chronological, covering Algren’s books and their reception or absence. Algren’s famous 1949 novel about drugs and drug addicts, The man with the golden arm, received the first National Book Award and brought Algren some fame and fortune. The novel was adapted for a 1955 film by director Otto Preminger and starred Frank Sinatra; the film was a box office and critical success, but was controversial due to its explicit treatment of drug addiction. But Algren was always bitter and unhappy with the way the story was handled and the way he was treated by the filmmaker.

His collection of short stories, The Neon Desert, and novel, A walk on the wild side, are also discussed.

Algren’s wonderfully poetic prose essay on his hometown, Chicago: a city in the making, with commentary and readings by Studs Terkel, gets top-notch treatment. (This book is the source of Algren’s most famous quote: “Yet once you are part of this particular patch, you will never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you You might find finer beauties. But never such a real beauty.”)

I wish Caplan had spent more time on my favorite Algren book, Never come in the morning (1942), an in-depth treatment of the people of Polonia, personified by the hopeless life of an aspiring boxer, Bruno Bicek, his buddies, managers and managers, and his occasional girlfriend, Steffi, who cannot provide for her needs only as a prostitute. The book was strongly criticized by the Polish community and was removed from the shelves of Chicago Public Libraries and Kroch’s & Brentano’s, Chicago’s main bookstore.

Another prominent segment is the stormy tale of Algren’s romance with French feminist Simone de Beauvoir, who spent time with him in her Chicago apartment and enjoyed visiting Algren’s haunts and hangouts; he also introduced her to the composition of the police. When she left him for the last time to return to Paris, she said her heart belonged to Algren, but her head belonged to Sartre (Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialist writer and philosopher and his life companion).

Caplan also addresses the striking lack of recognition of Algren’s work in Chicago, which led him to leave for the East Coast late in his life.

A second Algren documentary was produced in 2014 and was never widely released. Chicago native Denis Mueller, who now lives in Vermont, produced and directed Nelson Algren: The end is nothing, the road is everything. Also, if you want to delve into the life and work of Algren, we recommend 2016 Algren biography of Mary Wisniewski.

Algren, originally screened at the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival, airs on video on demand on January 11 and will stream on AppleTV, iTunes and Vimeo. The film lasts 85 minutes.

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