Nelson Algren: The Man With the Golden Pen

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Sitting in a stack of pulpy old crime novels and lascivious short stories of hookers, gangsters and freaks may be a diamond in the rough. The book is about a heroin addict named “Frankie Machine”, it won the National Book Award in 1950, and Otto Preminger’s film adaptation starred Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak.

The book and the film, “The Man With the Golden Arm”, may ring a bell, but its author, Nelson Algren, is still buried in that stack of old books.

In the new documentary Algren, which got its premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival on October 14, Nelson Algren is in the company of Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson. But his name has been forgotten, least of all in Chicago where he called home.

Since Algren’s heyday in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, his work’s legacy has seen the same pitiful fate of the poverty stricken subjects of his books, essays and articles. His works include “Chicago: City on the Make” and a social satire that Lou Reed pilfered the title of, “A Walk on the Wild Side.” He profiled the underbelly of the city, making his company among the neglectful husbands at the Berghoff, the homeless people living under the “L” and the Chicago mainstay writers like Studs Terkel and Mike Royko.

“He made the ugly beautiful,” said Michael Caplan, Director of the documentary Algren. “He was someone who lived among the darkness but wrote amazing, poetic literature from it.”

Algren was a writer’s writer, Caplan explains, inspiring the work of Cormac McCarthy and other modern contemporaries, but he’s been lost from the syllabus and bookstores for some time. He may not have been willing to play the fame game, but Caplan speculates that America grew weary of hearing about the poor and flocked to stories of the Middle Class.

“Saul Bellow became Chicago’s darling in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and he wrote about Hyde Park and Middle Class intellectuals. Algren did not have that,” Caplan said. “He wanted to keep writing about the people at the bottom, and I think America just got tired of that.”

Algren

It makes the need for a documentary on Algren all the more necessary, but Caplan’s challenge as a filmmaker was in finding peers and contemporaries still alive who could speak to Algren’s personality as well as his legacy. Though he had unprecedented access to photographer Art Shay’s many shots of Algren, Caplan settles for interviews with artists like William Friedkin and Billy Corgan, both of whom were moved by his writing.

Part of what spoke to Caplan throughout the making of the film was not just Algren’s prose but also his “life of integrity.”

“He walked the walk and he talked the talk. It sounds cliché, but that was the reality; he wasn’t a cultural tourist. He lived in the life he was talking about; he wasn’t just visiting,” Caplan said. “This was not a 9-5 job for him, and you don’t see that as much today.”

Today however Algren might be appalled at the Chicago he’s left behind. Caplan spoke to individuals who argued the poor have gotten poorer and people outside of their neighborhoods have grown colder and more private, with iPod earbuds always dangling.

“The reality is, it’s the same old shit,” Caplan said.

The Chicago International Film Festival however was an apt choice to make this premiere. Though Caplan hopes the film and the love for Algren breaks out beyond the Windy City, there’s something about introducing Nelson Algren back to the world not at Toronto or Sundance but at this festival.

Chicago after all was the city he cherished above all. Writing in “Chicago: City on the Make”, Algren wrote, “Once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”

A final screening of Algren as part of the Chicago International Film Festival premieres tonight at 8:00 PM CT. 

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