Sunday, May 22, 2016

Movie Review: Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, the Road is All

My lost Chicago: Reflections on the film

By Bob Boldt

Nelson Algren is regarded by some respected critics and authorities as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, certainly the greatest American writer. In spite of that, his career was dogged by censorship, slander, and worse of all, neglect. He was the quintessential modern, existential man, a mixture of light and dark. A devoted womanizer who seemed to be unable to sustain long-term relationships and an inveterate gambler, he wore his vices like badges of honor.
    In his poetic prose, the despised, downtrodden huddled masses found an eloquent voice. The powerful felt his sharpest thorns in their corpulent hindquarters. The man and his writing spoke for the victim and the voiceless. He actually lived where few writers and most readers would never dare to go themselves. The Patterson, New Jersey he deserted Chicago for in 1975 was not the genteel city of the Garden State that William Carlos Williams immortalized decades before. It was more like a page from Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s 2012 book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.
    Why he deserted the city he loved to hate and hated to love is still a mystery to many.

Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, the Road is All is a remarkable film [a short sample of the film is available on YouTube]. Considering it is composed largely of stock and archival footage, it flows remarkably well. Its look is as movingly gritty as its subject. As its opening and end titles seem to signify, the story emerges from and later descends into the underworld personified by the descent of the Chicago Transit Authority tracks into the subway depths. It is a tale told of one of the long-buried shades of our literary history – and an exceptionally neglected history of Chicago. It is somewhat difficult for me to objectively judge much of this account because it overlaps my own personal memories of the history and the geography of that particular patch. I left Chicago for Jefferson City, Missouri in 1984, a move I never thought I would make. Only a woman could have made me do it.
Yet 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. ―Nelson Algren, “Chicago: City on the Make” [a 1951 essay]
    Nelson left a decade earlier than I did. Chicago artists back then always were a loner breed, inveterate expats in a culture whose only civic recognition usually came in the form of a smart rap across the knuckles. So it was with Algren.
    From my earliest days there I cut my teeth on the image of artist as outsider. Nowhere was it truer than in the Chicago of the mid-twentieth century. Better than many other documentaries I have seen, this film captures the mood and the spirit of intellectual, spiritual, and material poverty out of which the artists struggled. Rooted in the Great Depression, Algren’s jaundiced view of American culture became one of the many streams that fed into the Beat’s disillusion and the great withholding that was the reaction to the postwar vacuity of the Eisenhower prosperity years. The images of the film always seem to emerge from black, from the dark streets to the silhouette skyline of the urban night punctuated with tiny windows of light. Like the tiny figure of the sage in a Chinese screen, the human figure wandering the deserted streets seems ever diminished, not by nature, but by the gritty urban sprawl and its inhumanity.
    This film contains carefully crafted collages that contribute to overall composite images greater than the images that compose them. The effect is like the clarity of a floating lucid dream-scape.
    The producers have avoided the inevitable comparisons with our present social/political climate. Yet the comparison is impossible to deny. As America sinks into decline, Algren’s vision of the killing floor of Empire becomes truer and more horrific even than when he composed his litany to the land of the hustle and the quick fix. Early on, Algren was one of many personifications of the beautiful looser who resembled many of the artists I came to know in my youth. These artists were characters dominated not so much by the lust for fame and recognition as for their humanity and integrity.

    They are largely gone now, having left the field to the sycophant, the dilettante, and the literary and art-market maven. We seem to have largely lost the message Algren has given us and repressed his ironic vision of the human condition. As the end nears, it seems we will be learning it all over again, the hard way. So it goes.

In the interests of full disclosure, I want to state that I am friends with Warren Lemming, one of the producers. This project was a longsuffering labor of love by Lemming and a group of filmmakers who felt respect must be paid to a great writer and great American. In case anyone would like to support their effort and would like a personal copy, please send $20 USD to
Lemming #203
2418 w. Bloomingdale,
Chicago, IL 60647
I in no material way profit from the writing of this review.

Afterward. Friends, most of whom are at least thirty years my junior, occasionally ask me why I am not more sanguine about the future, why I decline the long deep puffs of the hopium pipe that Bernie and the other politicians are selling. I grew up at the rat’s-ass end of the world of Nelson Algren. To know Chicago of the fifties, before the dirty facades were cleaned up, the medians nicely planted, and the cute little trendy bars on Clark Street began serving Lethe instead of despair is to know a despair so profound as to pass understanding. The salient lesson that was imprinted on my impressionable youth growing up beneath the big shoulders of this prairie Babylon was that the greed heads know only one word: “More!” Now that this horrific vision has gone global and you are either born a hog butcher or a hog, I refuse to pretend to know otherwise. The hustle is now universal. It has become Empire.
    Two years before releasing the epic Algren film, Warren Lemming produced a beautiful little poetic film that very accurately describes this unique malaise that is the Chicago apocalyptic vision. You can see Algren’s Last Night on YouTube.

Copyright © 2016 by Bob Boldt


  1. Enjoyed the review Bod. The first time I went to Chicago was 1955 I was 12. Rode the bus up from Harlingen,Texas by myself---I had family that lived outside of Chicago. The bus station was right in the loop. Not a nice place for a 12 year old to step into.

    1. I remember that bus station. It was as you have said.