Nelson Algren: The End Is Nothing, The Road Is All... ()

directed by Denis Mueller, Ilko Davidov, Mark Blottner
featuring Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Studs Terkel

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Oct 22, 2019

The Poet Of The Lost

In the middle of this documentary film, "The End is Nothing, The Road is All" about the writer Nelson Algren (1909 -- 1981), one of the interviewees refers to Algren as the "poet of the lost". This description and the film itself reminded me of similar monikers applied to authors similar to Algren: Charles Bukowski, for example, is often called the "poet of skid row" while noir writer David Goodis is referred to as the "poet of the losers.". Algren is best known for his National Book Award novel, "The Man with the Golden Arm" and for the novel "A Walk on the Wild Side". Like Bukowski and Goodis, Algren portrayed the gritty, sad characters in American life, the poor, the grifters, alcoholics, prostitutes, drug dealers and users, and those down on their luck. Algren was also a lonely, tormented individual. Near the end of the film, Kurt Vonnegut describes him as the "loneliest man I ever met."

Directed by Mark Blottner and Ilko Davidov, this film offers an excellent overview of Algren's life and work. The film includes extensive interviews with people who knew Algren well, including Vonnegut, Studs Terkel, Algren biographers and critics, and more. Selections from Algren's writings are utilized at length in the film read by a variety of speakers including Algren himself. The most appealing part of this film, however, is the gritty footage. There are scenes of Depression-era Oklahoma and Texas, of Paterson, New Jersey where Algren lived late in life and, most importantly, of Chicago, a city Algren both loved and hated. There are views of the El, of troubled people, streets, and rooming houses and of bars that cater to the city's lost. The footage suits the subject matter: Algren would have felt at home. The film has a wonderfully bluesy, jazzy original sound track.

The film tells the story of Algren's life, beginning with a stay in Texas where as a young man he narrowly avoided a substantial prison sentence for stealing a typewriter. The film describes his early short stories, his major success with "The Man with a Golden Arm" and his long decline. Viewers new to Algren will get a sense of him as a writer. The film also describes Algren's relationship with women, particularly with the French existentialist writer, Simone de Beauvoir.

Algren was a man of the left. His politics during the 1930's and 1940's came back to haunt him and to contribute to his career's demise in the 1950s. The film makes a great deal of the difficulties Algren and some other writers experienced during the tense days of the 1950s.Algren was denied a passport for many years due to his political activism which included, according to the film, signing a petition seeking clemency for Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg in the notorious spy case of the early 1950s.

The film shows as well some of the flaws in Algren's character that also contributed to his eclipse, including his heavy womanizing, compulsive gambling and addiction to the racetrack. Here again I was reminded of Bukowski, a less gifted writer with some of the same character traits.

There is a degree of hyperbole in the film as Algren is described at one point as one of the greatest writers in English and at another point as on a par, or better than Dostoevsky or Chekhov At times, the film forgets that there are several sides to every story. It adopts a heavily defensive tone towards Algren's political activity, for example, and it shows the disagreement that arose between Algren and film director Otto Preminger over the filming of "The Man with the Golden Arm" solely from Algren's perspective. Even so, this documentary captures a great deal of a complex person and an important American writer who deserves to be remembered. After watching the film, I wanted to read and reread some of the works that were described on the screen. In making me want to learn and read more, this film was a highly successful documentary about Algren.

The film is distributed by First Run Features, which specializes in independent film. First Run Features kindly sent me a copy to review. The film includes English subtitles and excellent bonus footage.

Total Time: 85 minutes

Robin Friedman

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