'Algren': Film Review

Algren Film Still - H 2014

Algren Film Still - H 2014

Incisive, engaging documentary on Chicago writer Nelson Algren

A documentary depiction of an author that Ernest Hemingway declared second only to William Faulkner in the pantheon of U.S. writers

Nowhere near the Magnificent Mile, Wrigley Field, the Loop or the identifiable big-shoulder, eye-popping landmarks of Chicago, the world of writer Nelson Algren was a different Chicago. He wrote about people in west Chicago who would not otherwise have a voice, and who existed in areas where no one would willingly go. He chronicled the down ‘n’ out with spare, open-eyed prose, and he rewrote and rewrote so that it wafted as poetry. He wrote as they talked, and was a strong influence on such future Windy City ink-stained wretches as Studs Terkel

Playing here at the 50th Chicago International Film Festival, Algren engrossed audiences with its riveting, comprehensive depiction of an author that Ernest Hemingway declared second only to William Faulkner in the pantheon of U.S. writers. Nelson Algren won the first National Book Award in 1950 with The Man with the Golden Arm.

Filmmaker Michael Caplan weaves together Algren’s life in an absorbing blend of interviews, voiceovers and, most compellingly, a trove of Art Shay photographs  Shay’s riveting black-and-white photos convey the austere vibrancy of Algren’s writing.  They distil the grimy essence of a man who lived off the grid — in both psychological terms and municipal-ese.  His personal life was complex, contradictory and tumultuous, most strikingly a torrid love affair he had with French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.

As Algren saw it, and made readers see and feel it, those people “lived life all the way because they had no choice.”  He lived in their world, listened to their stories, got their voices down, such as “monkey on my back,” which he lifted from a junkie to describe the debilitating horror of heroin addiction.  

Algren’s terse, poetic works included Chicago, City on the Make and A Walk on the Wild Side.  Often they were banned from establishment bookstores for their raw, unsentimental ferocity. Some were adapted into movies, which Algren vilified in salty expletives — or, as in this film, John Sayles says more delicately of the movie business’ adaptations:  “They scraped the edges off his work.”

Fortunately, filmmaker Michael Caplan keeps Nelson Algren’s “edges” in this stand-up documentary.

Production: Montrose Pictures
Screenwriter/Director: Michael Caplan
Producers: Gail Sonnenfeld, Nicole Bernardi-Reis
Cast: Nelson Algren, William Friedkin, Billy Corgan, Art Shay, Stephen Elliott, Andy Davis
Editor: Drew Hall
Music: Wayne Kramer

No rating, 87 minutes