Home Book Award Review: Nelson Algren’s documentary pays delayed tribute to “Dostoyevsky of Division Street”

Review: Nelson Algren’s documentary pays delayed tribute to “Dostoyevsky of Division Street”

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

Image courtesy of Montrose Pictures.

The music of Wayne Kramer, founder of the Detroit proto-punk and metal band MC5, adds a edgy, edgy sonic vibe to the story of a writer often described as the voice of drunks, pimps, prostitutes, monsters. , drug addicts and thugs. . (Bookseller Stuart Brent called him the Dostoevsky of Division Street.) Caplan got to know Kramer as a potential collaborator in part because of his 2002 song, “Nelson Algren has been there.”

The history of Caplan is punctuated by the three rules of life of Algren:

  • Never play cards with a man called 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 not. Algren’s famous 1949 novel about drugs and addicts, The man with the golden arm, received the first National Book Award and brought Algren 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 has always been 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 wild neon, and novel, A walk on the wild side, are also discussed.

Division Street poker game. Image courtesy of Montrose Pictures.

Algren’s wonderfully poetic prose essay on his hometown, Chicago: a city in the making, with commentary and readings from Studs Terkel, enjoys top notch treatment. (This book is the source for Algren’s most famous quote: “Yet once you’re a part of this particular patch, you’ll never love one again. A beautiful one so real.”)

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 pals, managers and managers, as well as his occasional girlfriend, Steffi, who cannot support himself. that like a whore. The book received fierce criticism from the Polish community and was pulled from the shelves of Chicago public libraries and Kroch’s & Brentano’s, Chicago’s preeminent bookstore.

Another important segment is Algren’s stormy tale of 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 presented her to the police line. When she left him one last time to return to Paris, she said her heart belonged to Algren, but his head belonged to Sartre (Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialist writer and philosopher and his life companion).

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

A second Algren documentary was produced in 2014 and was never broadcast widely. A native of Chicago, 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 immerse yourself in Algren’s life and work, we recommend Mary Wisniewski’s Algren 2016 biography.

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

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