Film Review: “Nelson Algren: The End Is Nothing, The Road Is All”

by Douglas Cowie on 17 May 2017

Note: Over the past six months or so I have participated in a few events at which I’ve discussed the life and work of Nelson Algren, followed by a screening of the documentary film, Nelson Algren: The End Is Nothing, The Road Is All. I’ve watched the film several times now, so it seemed worthwhile to write a short review explaining why I like it so much, and why it is such a valuable contribution to any conversation about Nelson Algren.

Nelson Algren, it seems, is an author who needs much introduction. Winner of the 1949 National Book Award for The Man with the Golden Arm, a novel that was also turned into a film starring Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak, author of A Walk on the Wild Side, which part-inspired one of Lou Reed’s most famous songs, long-term lover of Simone de Beauvoir, one of the twentieth century’s most famous thinkers, Algren’s bright light waned over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, and not long after his death in 1981, he all but vanished from the national literary canon and conversation. The last twenty or so years have seen a steady increase in attention to Nelson Algren’s work and life, and Nelson Algren: The End Is Nothing, The Road Is All by Mark Blottner, Denis Mueller and Ilko Davidov proves a fascinating addition to that attention.

When I mention Nelson Algren to people, they usually ask the same few questions: Who? What makes him so great? Why is he forgotten if he was so great? Nelson Algren: The End Is Nothing, The Road Is All addresses each of these questions. The documentary weaves together the story of Algren’s life, the story of Algren’s work, and the story of Algren’s reputation into an endlessly absorbing portrait of the man and his times. It’s particularly fascinating to hear Algren’s friends—writer and broadcaster Studs Terkel, playwright Dave Peltz, bookseller Stuart Brent, writer Denise McClue, among others—discuss with equal relish the hapless gambler, the charming, inquisitive lover, the empathetic friend of the downtrodden, the genius thinker and writer. The film balances these personal reminiscences and insights against the insights of Algren scholars, including biographer Bettina Drew and critics James R. Giles and Brooke Horvath, which serve to place his life and work into a wider context.

These two aspects alone would make the film worth watching. The real achievement of Nelson Algren: The End Is Nothing, The Road Is All, however, is the answer it provides to the third of those questions I posed above. Algren’s reputation was deliberately destroyed, along with those of many other writers, artists and regular people, by the collusion of the FBI and CIA as part of wider anti-communist witch hunting in the 1950s. The documentary tells this story both through the explanations of its experts, including the excellent Paul Buhle, and the imagery of both Algren and America. Through this aspect of the story, the film subtly and effectively reveals the true importance of Algren, the man and the writer. The man who empathized so greatly with the outcasts of American society, and who wrote so elegantly about those outcasts, was systematically silenced by the same forces that cast those people out. The silencing of Algren was not simply the destruction of one man and his writing career; it was the silencing of the voiceless people for whom he tried to speak. The film ends with Kurt Vonnegut describing Algren as a man without a gang, the loneliest person Vonnegut ever knew. It opens, more or less, with a quotation from The Man with the Golden Arm about “the great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one.” These two ideas are expertly woven together during the 90 minutes that runs between them. The story of Algren and the stories by Algren are inseparable and important stories of America, and this film tells those stories vibrantly and memorably.

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