Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"Algren" - Chicago International Film Festival

"You must love a city's alleys... also its stray cats." - Nelson Algren

How appropriate that the Chicago International Film Festival, which begins its 50th year on October 9, is premiering the documentary Algren, about one this city's most insightful and decorated writers, at this year's fest. Engaging, edgy and filled with wonderfully entertaining stories about the writer, it's a beautiful, heartfelt tribute to the life and times of a truly unique individual.

To most Americans who knew his name, Nelson Algren was the author of the 1949 novel The Man With the Golden Arm, a frank novel about drugs in the inner city neighborhoods of Chicago. Yet the author had been chronicling the back alleys and dimly lit streets, what he called "the other side of the billboards" for many years before that. Beginning with The Neon Wilderness, a collection of short stories about whores, dope fiends and crooked cops, published in the mid 1930s, Algren became somewhat of a bard of the streets. He identified with these people and celebrated their lives for the next 30 years.

In the documentary, various friends recall Algren's personality and actions during his years in Chicago. Such luminaries as film directors William Friedkin, John Sayles and Philip Kaufman as well as writers such as Bruce Jay Friedman, Denise de Clue and even musician Billy Corgan discuss their thoughts about Algren, his influence and the Chicago neighborhoods that he featured in his prose. Much is made of his lack of skill at poker; Friedkin reminiscing that he really shouldn't have held those poker games in his apartment, as he lost too much money.

Director Michael Caplan, while giving us the usual talking heads that are seemingly part of every documentary/biography these days, has the good sense not to film these interviews in a static fashion, opting instead to place these individuals in front of text from Algren or in most cases, a vivid black and white photograph of the neighborhood's souls and passageways, taken by Art Shay, who also appears at a few moments in the film, discussing Algren's life.

Another important part of this documentary is the dissection of Algren's relationship with the famed French author Simone de Beauvior. Before she wrote her most famous book entitled The Second Sex in 1949, she was best known for being the companion and lover of French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. But one day in 1947, she flew to Chicago and was introduced to Algren; soon the two were lovers and had a relationship that lasted for four years. The breakup was sudden and unexpected and it shattered Algren, according to the individuals who talk about it in the film. "I knew that she loved him," says one of the interviewees, "because she laughed at every joke Nelson told, even though she couldn't understand them."

Algren would leave the city in 1970, as he felt he no longer needed Chicago and that Chicago no longer needed him. The film follows his last few years on the East Coast, as the writer finally found some meaning he had been missing in his life for many years, when he joined a writer's colony in Sag Harbor, Long Island in 1980, shortly before his death. Director Caplan clearly notes the sadness of Algren's departure from Chicago; this is one of the best sequences in the film.

The combination of stories and vivid Art Shay photos help move this film along effortlessly and help us get a great understanding of the thought process of Algren. Serious writer, socially conscious and also a bit of a clown with his small group of friends, Nelson Algren was a lover of life who embraced the back avenues of Chicago like no other author before or since.

Although I never met the man, after watching Algren, I feel like I know a great deal about him, so high praise for the work done by director Caplan and his team. Now I think I'll go read one of his books (after the film festival concludes, of course!)

Note: As the various individuals are seen on screen talking about Algren, they are identified as to their name and profession. However, William Friedkin, who appears three or four times, is never named. Friedkin is certainly a famous film director and has a distinctive voice, but there will be many who view this film who will not know that he is talking. Let's hope that the filmmakers catch this oversight and correct it.

Algren - Directed by Michael Caplan - 87 minutes

The film will be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival on these dates and times:

October 14 - 6:00 PM
October 20 - 12:15 PM
October 21 - 8:00 PM

The theater will be the AMC River East 21 at 322 E. Illinois Street

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