When you meet someone who loves 20th-century writer Nelson Algren, the first thing they tell you is how much they love Nelson Algren. The second thing they’ll tell you is that it’s a shame that Algren, whose work won the National Book Award for fiction in 1950, and who was praised during his lifetime by Ernest Hemingway, Studs Terkel, and Simone de Beauvoir (she and Algren were brief, fierce lovers), is now such an unknown. Algren’s devotion to telling stories that might not have otherwise gotten the attention they deserved—tales of working class immigrants or folks struggling with addiction—encouraged Chicago documentary filmmaker Michael Caplan to remain dedicated to Algren, his newest film, throughout the years it took to complete. 

Caplan’s first contact with Algren occurred when the former was wandering Wicker Park in his early 20s and the latter was dead. “My memory is that I found a used copy of The Man With the Golden Arm in a used bookstore,” Caplan said to me in an interview before a screening of Algren, hosted by the Chicago Humanities Festival, at the Field Museum this October. “I knew nothing about him and I was just blown away.”

Caplan, a professor in Columbia College’s Cinema and Television Arts Department, was born and raised by the steel mills on the southeast side of Chicago—“Part of my childhood was seeing the glow of the slag being poured,” he said—and later moved with his family to West Rogers Park. He lives in Albany Park now, by coincidence only a block away from Nelson Algren’s childhood home. As in Algren’s writing, a sense of time and place figures strongly in Caplan’s film about him, so much so that pivotal cities and decades in the writer’s life become almost characters themselves. 

Algren follows the writer from his 1909 birth in Detroit to his 1981 death in Long Island, bitter and estranged from Chicago, the city he lived the longest in and that most defined Algren’s career and his life. Caplan began work on Algren in 2009, released a version of the film that toured festivals in 2014, “but then we basically sat on it,” he said, until some legal and financial knots were untied. Independent film distributor First Run Features picked it up in January 2021: the film is streaming through Music Box Direct (until mid-November) and the Gene Siskel Film Center (until November 12).

Algren ★★★
Dir. Michael Caplan, 85 min. Gene Siskel Film Center, Music Box Theatre

“To me,” Caplan said, “that is one of the most compelling things that a documentarian can do—tell a story people might not otherwise know about.”

But is Algren unknown? The crowd, to my eyes, numbered over 125, and was composed primarily of fans all ready to love what they were there to see. “That’s right!” a woman to my left said approvingly when someone onscreen made a favorable remark about Algren’s short story collection Neon Wilderness. Until this screening, I hadn’t been to a movie theater in nearly two years. Before COVID-19, I’d certainly watched movies with an enthusiastic audience ready to be entertained and eager to talk back, none of which were documentaries about dead authors shown at 3 PM on a sunny Saturday. 

I myself have only recently come to Algren. His work is known for its faithful, loving replication of various ethnic and working class dialects and slang, something the documentary touches on. For example, The Man With the Golden Arm, the novel that so enthralled a young Caplan, is credited for introducing “monkey on my back” as a euphemism for heroin addiction to mainstream culture. But as a reader, what I like best so far are his restless, running descriptions: 

“. . . God tossed a handful of city rain across the green and red tavern legends like tossing a handful of red and green confetti.” 

“[W]alls . . . the hue of diluted morphine in the moment before the needle draws the suffering blood.”

“Faces bloody as raw pork ground slowly in the great city’s grinder; faces like burst white bags–”

I loved the documentary most when it sensorily saturated the viewer the way Algren’s writing does. “It’s fairly fast-paced for a documentary, which frankly, some reviewers have not liked. But my goal was to make it so you just don’t get bored, because when you read Algren, you don’t get bored,” said Caplan. 

“Doing a film about a writer, there’s these built-in limitations, where you’re trying to make something that’s visual and auditory come alive,” he continued. “And in the case of Algren, I had a lot of photos from the late [Chicago photographer and Algren friend] Art Shay, and I had audio, but I didn’t have much film.” Using photographs, archival audio, and interviews with 19 of what Caplan calls Witnesses, Caplan creates an 85-minute pastiche of Algren’s life, inspired as much by Algren’s books as by the funny, odd, private collages the writer made for and stuck to his apartment walls for years. On the screen, handwritten letters overlay photographs, and archival film of a sooty Chicago rolls silently while actors bring the voices of long-dead writers into being. My favorite shot, however, isn’t collage. Towards the end of the film, it’s just old man Algren, wading into bright blue water, his seafoam bathing trunks working rigorously to hold up his belly. Squinting into the camera against the sun, the writer known during his lifetime for nadirs as great in impact as his successes looks shy and a little self-conscious, but happy.