You can’t get away from the magic of Algren’s best writing.
No writer captured the underbelly of American life better than Nelson Algren, perhaps because he had direct experience of the subject. Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, the Road is All, a documentary directed by Mark Glottner and Ilko Davidov, emphasizes the relationship between Algren’s life and writing, often juxtaposing quotations from his literary work and episodes from his life in a way that makes the connections clear.
Nelson Algren largely skips over the writer’s early years (he was born in Detroit in 1909, but raised in Chicago), picking up with his life after graduation from the University of Illinois in 1931. Algren earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism but found that America, then in the throes of the Great Depression, had no job to offer him. He entered what he called “a world of wandering people” and got a firsthand taste of life among the down and out. But Algren was blessed with good luck also and was granted mercy (and no jail time) after being convicted of stealing a typewriter, allowing him to return to Chicago.
Algren worked for the Federal Writer’s Project, which provided him with a regular paycheck, and used the leisure time thus obtained (he claimed he never did any real work for the Project) to develop his own writing. Uncle Sam might well consider Algren’s FWP salary a good investment in the future, because his best works, like The Man with the Golden Arm and Chicago: City on the Make, are classics of American literature. It’s true that Algren produced some real clinkers as well, but then what writer hasn’t?
Nelson Algren is a bread-and-butter documentary made up primarily of archival and stock footage combined with interviews with people who knew Algren or with present-day scholars and writers and voiceover excerpts from Algren’s writing. Some omissions (Algren’s early years, for instance, during which he was no stranger to Chicago’s pool halls and gambling dens) are surprising, and emphasis in some cases seems to have been dictated by the availability of archival materials (e.g., lengthy treatment of his relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, versus virtually nothing about his two wives, one of which he married twice, or of other aspects of his home life). Still, you can’t get away from the magic of Algren’s best writing, which is well-represented in this film, most often presented in voiceover in conjunction with footage expressing the mood or illustrating the content of the text.
Extras on the disc include the short film “Algren’s Last Night” (6 min.), directed by Warren Leming and Carmine Cervi; video of an appearance by directors Blottner and Mueller on The Heartland Show (13 min.); four interview segments (Bettina Drew on Algren and Simone de Beauvoir, 2 min.; Brook Horvath on Algren’s politics, 2 min.; Studs Terkel on Algren and the police, 1 min.; Stephen Deutch on Algren’s funeral, 2 min.), a slideshow of Stephen Deutch’s photos of Algren, and text biographies of the filmmakers. | Sarah Boslaugh