New Doc on Life of Blacklist Writer Nelson Algren, His Affair with Simone de Beauvoir and Fascination with Chicago’s Underworld
by Mark Blottner, Denis Mueller and Ilko Davidov
Mark Blottner: In a blue-collar neighborhood on the west side of Cleveland.
Film Courage: Are/Were your parents supportive of your creativity?
Mark: Yes. I can draw well and enjoyed painting so I received lots of attention and support from my family and others from an early age on.
Film Courage: What were your plans after high school? How much did they differ looking back now?
Mark: After high school I attended the Cleveland Institute of Art to pursue a career in the fine arts and was introduced to film and video. I transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to advance my skills in video and computer art – both fairly new disciplines at the time. After college, I got involved in making documentaries through friends and social causes.
Denis: Staying out of Vietnam was my main goal. Things turned out very differently than I ever would have thought.
Film Courage: When did the idea for the new film Nelson Algren: The End Is Nothing, the Road Is All begin?
Mark: In 1989 I was rooming with a writer who turned me on to Algren\'s work. It resonated with me due to the honest yet compassionate portrayal of the denizens of the Wicker Park neighborhood where I was living at the time. Even though the stories were written 40 or so years earlier, they still rang true. Algren was new to me and it struck me as extremely odd that he was not better known. I attended the first event of the newly formed Nelson Algren Committee and realized there was a community that was eager to promote the work and life of this long-forgotten writer. With the support of Algren committee members Stuart McCarrell, a poet and playwright, and actor/writer/musician Warren Leming, I started work on a biographical film strongly influenced by Bettina Drew\'s bio, Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side. Bettina shared interview contacts along with a sampling of Algren\'s FBI file. Through the ensuing interviews with the likes of Studs Terkel, it became apparent that there was an important story about the suppression of Algren\'s work via blacklisting and literary critical bias during the post-war Red Scare 50s.
Film Courage: How did the three of you begin to work together?
Mark: Around 1996, I started to have financial struggles and had to shelve the film for a while. I had to restructure my career from video production to web design and development. It wasn\'t until 2012 that I had the time and money to resurrect the film and I immediately called on my long-time friend from Wicker Park bohemian days, Denis Mueller, to complete the project. I was struggling with how to tell the story and Denis had recently completed a film on Howard Zinn that was short-listed for an Academy Award. With his PhD in American Cultural Studies, experience in making documentaries about FBI injustices, his knowledge of the subject matter, and independent filmmaker\'s tenacity, Denis was a perfect choice. Also, he had already conducted an interview with Stuart McCarrell about the FBIs harassment of Algren and he had worked on the film already – helping with a key interview of Kurt Vonnegut.
Denis: After Mark called me several years ago I contacted Ilko because I had worked with him previously and knew this could work. He knew what I was trying to do visually with this so things went well. He added to the vision of how this could look.
Ilko could not participate in this Q & A as he is busy editing a
Film Courage: Why is Nelson Algren a vital part of American literature?
Mark: Algren\'s work stylistically is grounded in leftist proletariat social realism, yet influenced by modernist concepts such as existentialism. His work is centered on character development portrayed via the vernacular of his subjects. So, in that sense, writing poetic prose with an underlying political awareness, his work has a distinct place in the canon of 20th century American Literature, but the key is his empathy and understanding of the lower classes, not the working class, but the depths of society: prostitutes, drug addicts, petty thieves. Algren\'s characters are presented on a personal level with all of their psychological issues and existential choices, but they are also shown to be victims of our consumerist capitalist world. Algren had definite ideas of the writer\'s role in society and clearly felt that writers must lead with a moral conscience.
.The Nelson Algren Collection at the Rare Books and
Denis: His prose lends its beauty to people who could never express those words quite that way even in their thoughts but Algren’s great gift is somehow to able express the frustration they feel within the context of those characters\' world. No small feat. Because he can do this, he can show how they fail without ever being condescending to them. They are losers, but still human. Again, no small feat.
Film Courage: How many people are aware of Algren and his work?
Mark: Exactly 1,347. Seriously, it\'s been stated that Algren is known as a “writer\'s writer” and I think that\'s generally true. It\'s a shame that\'s the way it is because his work is certainly accessible to the average reader.
Denis: Not that many people know of him. He is a cult writer outside of Chicago and writers.
Film Courage: Why is Algren not better known today among the collection of American writers?
Mark: Algren\'s output was severely diminished and his career was destroyed as it was peaking due to the impact of the FBI\'s blacklisting activities and the cultural attacks from the CIA-backed New Critics during the Red Scare. The FBI harassment began with an attack from the local Polish community leaders who wrote to J. Edgar Hoover complaining about the depictions of gang members and prostitutes in their neighborhood. He had a famous trans-continental love affair with French philosopher/writer Simone de Beauvoir that was tragically limited due to the denial of a passport for years. From that point on, he was not able to write another serious novel.
Denis: Part of that is what academia chooses to be the canon. It does not choose those who challenge them.
Film Courage: What parts of Nelson Algren’s life took you by surprise, which discovered while making the film?
Mark: The terrible impact of the FBI blacklisting, what they did and how that affected him.
Denis: There is so much. I never quite understood how dysfunctional he was so when I did, it shocked me to see the FBI considered him a threat. Are you kidding me? This guy, like myself, has a hard enough time with his own life to be any kind of threat to the nation.
Film Courage: How much research did you do before beginning the interviews with people who knew of Nelson Algren\'s history?
Mark: Years of research went into this due to the huge time gap when I wasn\'t able to do any post-production on the film. One impact of this was that during that time we learned more about the CIA backing of the “New Criticism” as described in Frances Stonor Saunders\' book The Cultural Cold War (1999). I certainly had the time to read everything written by and about Nelson Algren as well and the internet changed things dramatically. We were able to find rare footage of an Algren interview in a film by Wieland Schulz-Keil, The New Deal for Artists (1976), where he speaks matter-of-factly about his leftist political background.
Film Courage: What type of footage with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and Studs Terkel did you weave into the film?
Mark: These were interviews shot in the mid-90s on Hi8 tape. We were lucky to salvage the footage – I carried the tapes around for years.
Denis: It was lightning in a bottle. Don’t forget his other friends. They knew him so as they died their footage became more valuable. This was first person stuff.
Film Courage: Was any of this interview footage capture before their deaths in 2007/2008?
Denis: It was all done earlier. The fact we were ready to bring it to the public attention is part of the charm of our film. We shot new things as well.
Film Courage: What is your favorite Nelson Algren quote and why?
"Literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity."
I like this for its\' absolute clarity on the role of the writer and art in society.
“Our myths are so many, our vision so dim, our self-deception so deep and our smugness so gross that scarcely any way now remains of reporting the American Century except from behind the billboards.”
I like this because it could have been written today.
Film Courage: If Nelson were alive and writing today (2015), how do you envision his public reception/standing?
Mark: I\'m not sure what kind of impact he would have as a novelist, but certainly many screenwriters are influenced by his work. He attempted a non-fiction novel about the murder trial of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, but was forced to rewrite it into fiction when Carter\'s initial appeal failed and he was found guilty. I think had he completed that novel as planned, that he would have been much better known.
Film Courage: How long did it take to make Nelson Algren: The End Is Nothing, the Road Is All?
Mark: 25 years total, but really about 5 years in the 90s and then another 2 years from 2012 to 2014 so, 7 years of solid work.
Film Courage: Of the $250,000 estimated budget mentioned on IMDB, what were the biggest costs aside from editing and color correction?
Mark: Probably the audio post-production. The old footage required a lot of tweaking and the sound design took a while, but we are very proud of the job done by Ricky Biethan along with Ilko Davidov.
Denis: Footage and labor are the big costs. Everything is done pro bono. No way to get rich. In some ways it fits Algren.
Film Courage: How much of the film is archival footage and how did you secure this footage?
Any tips to fellow filmmakers on obtaining similar footage?
Denis: Hire me. Seriously, I come to this with doing a lifetime of archival research. Start off with the National Archives. It’s easy now. The hard to find things are ones that people have but do not license, so actually, look at filmographies.
Film Courage: What screenings are coming up and where can someone watch the film?
Denis: We will have our premiere at The American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs at the Camelot Theatre on March 27th and then will have our Chicago debut at the Gene Siskel Film Center on April 4th.
Film Courage: What was your criteria for submitting to film festivals? How many did you submit to and receive acceptance?
Photo Credit: Stephen Deutch/Chicago History Museum
Denis: We submitted a couple. Not that many. We concentrated on getting distribution, which we did with First Run Features.
Film Courage: Why is a film festival screening important to you?
Denis: We want people to see us. It helps with bookings. It get reviews and therefore free publicity. You really get to see the audience react. It is fun. How does the audience see it. They are the ultimate judge so there are a lot of reasons.
Film Courage: What moments during the project became difficult and tested your resolve? Why did you stay with the film?
Mark: There were many times where I thought that this film would never get done and I feared being forever known as “that guy who never finished the Algren film.” I had to go back and do some of the interviews over due to technical reasons. Asking Studs Terkel to do another interview by explaining that the tape was somehow bulk erased certainly tests your resolve.
Film Courage: What is the accompanying study guide to Nelson Algren: The End Is Nothing, the Road Is All?
Denis: To help educators for their classes when they discuss Algren. We offer it free on our website.
Film Courage: What happened with the infamous 1967 mugshot with Algren? Why was he arrested?
Mark: Nelson was riding around with some friends in a car with stolen records (LPs). They were pulled over and the cops found a joint. He was taken in, booked, but never charged. The neighborhood police knew Algren as “kind of a flake” (Studs\' words).
Film Courage: Where did Nelson\'s personal and professional downfall begin?
Denis: I think when the FBI got them to cancel his passport. He could no longer see Simon de Beauvoir in Paris. The FBI got Doubleday to cancel his book contract and this along with the academic critic’s assault on him with people like Norman Podhoretz, who was one of the proponents of the disaster in Iraq, leading the way along with his own demons led to his marginalization.
Film Courage: Why was Nelson considered a threat during the 50’s and receive FBI attention?
Denis: It is complicated. Nelson was part of groups of artists that embraced the collective instincts of the 30s. Remember he rode the rails for three years and was a college graduate. After the war, when the GOP and the business wing of the Democratic party decided there would never be a real left in America they turned the political activity of these artists during the Depression against them. They were really just scapegoats for a much larger plan - so people like Algren became a threat even when their writings were not really that political. You had to believe the billboards to be safe in America in the 50s. Plus you had to create a climate of fear. Sound familiar?
Film Courage: Is there part of Nelson\'s rocky existence that you secretly (or not so secretly) wish to live out, realizing expression in this form comes with a price?
Mark: The budding love affair with Simone at the same time as the success of his book, The Man With the Golden Arm, which won the National Book Award in 1949.
Denis: Having Simone de Beauvoir fall in love with me.
Film Courage: What can the lives of wildly creative (and at times horribly self-destructive individuals) show future writers, romanticizing about becoming similar icons (i.e., Algren, Fitzgerald, Bukowski, Thompson, Hemingway, etc.)?
Mark: I\'m not so sure that the romanticizing is separate from actual personal problems of a self-destructive nature. Most successful artists that are prone to this behavior are best off when they are able to channel their energies into their work.
Film Courage: Do most insightful writers battle great personal demons, seemingly more than other humans who deal with the struggles of life? (Hence the saying \'With Great Gifts Come Great Struggle\')
Mark: Perhaps their struggles are better known because they are famous or their work reflects these issues. Certainly in the case of Algren, as with most artists, is the on-going issue of financing a creative career.
Film Courage: Why is Nelson Algren’s work rejected by some academics? Did Algren\'s accomplishments fail to impress academia because of his fascination with the \'put upon\' or disenfranchised? Did his identification with ‘outsiders’ scare or fascinate most suburban readers at that time?
Denis: Many of the academics were part of the CIA. This is one of things we bring out in Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, the Road is All. They were in a Cold War and they claimed these types of things like poverty do not exist. The academic literary magazines were being supported by the CIA, so realism was out and so were writers like Algren. The New Criticism denied history or that the author’s history or point of view mattered. That all had to go. Besides, their existence depended on USIA funding.
Film Courage: Why are people so fascinated by Algren\'s relationship with Simone de Beauvoir?
Mark: It has the makings of great romance: two passionate people, creative and political. People like the idea of her finding a real love with Nelson, not just a contingent affair. That very idea of contingent love is what caused problems with them in the end. The distant love affair can be seen as tremendously romantic, all of the sacrifice, the longing, and the discipline as artists. Plus, I think they influenced each other greatly – Nelson learning more about existentialism from Simone, and Simone learning about the lives of the poor from Nelson.
Film Courage: Simone de Beauvoir versus Nelson Algren - who was more controversial at the time and why?
Mark: Nelson\'s fictional work in the 40s was more controversial than Simone\'s due to his choice of subject matter. She wrote about the intellectual circles around her in a very autobiographical way. Simone\'s non-fiction book The Second Sex (1949), certainly caused a stir due to its\' overt feminist approach to history. In the late 50s, she supported the Algerians in their war of independence from France and the media attacked her. She spent her life writing about ideas that challenged the middle-class status quo. Nelson\'s most controversial essays were written in the early 50s and were not published until after his death.
Denis: I think they were both convinced that they were the better writer, but I disagree with Mark. Plus, Simone put her life on the line. Her stance against the Algerian War made her hated to the right wing in France so it depends how you look at it. Simone’s life was in danger. Algren’s they chose to destroy.
Film Courage: What is the Nelson Algren Committee?
Mark: They are a group based in Chicago founded to promote the work of Nelson Algren. They have been successful in getting a street named in his honor and a fountain built in his name. Every year they hold an event on his birthday that includes readings and performances from Algren\'s works and like-minded artists.
Film Courage: What is Seven Stories Press?
Denis: It is an independent book company started by publisher Dan Simon. They are one of the last of the Independents. Dan Simon and Bettina Drew are also very important in the Nelson Algren revival. Dan publishes things no one dares to - including Algren.
Algren biographer Bettina Drew greeting Denis Mueller at her homewhen we interviewed her in 2012
Film Courage: How did the public’s interest of Algren’s life before and until his death, compare to today\'s public obsession with celebrity scandal? Would Algren been seen as a much milder “Bachelor” with an interest in that which is a bit taboo?
Denis: I think he would operate in much the same way. Remember he would say things that rub people the wrong way. He still would be a major talent.
Film Courage: What are your plans for distributing the film/How did your deal with First Run Features come about?
Denis: We hope to play everywhere! Please read this and book this very nice and interesting film.
Besides that, First Run Features had distributed my film that I did with Deb Ellis, Howard Zinn: You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train. They are also one of the few distributors willing to take a chance on a film like this.
Film Courage: Do you see a modern day Red Scare forming in the US?
Mark: Yes, the post-9/11 American life seems to be founded on fear and with the proliferation of digital technology we are facing new challenges regarding privacy and freedom.
Film Courage: What do you want audiences to leave with after viewing the film?
Denis: I want them to feel that they saw a very good film about a terrific writer and that our artists here in the United States are treated with contempt and to try understanding how all of society loses when their voice is buried.
Nelson Algren: The End Is Nothing, The Road Is All Sample from Nelson Algren documentary on Vimeo.
Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, the Road is All is an in-depth feature length documentary about one of America\'s greatest and least understood authors. This never-before-told compelling life story reveals a unique literary voice through rare interviews, historic archival footage and the gritty noirish voice of Algren. Kurt Vonnegut and Studs Terkel, literary giants in their own right, sing songs of praise along with many of his old friends, which makes this film seem like a hymn from the grave. Algren’s touching love affair with Simone de Beauvoir weaves its way through his life and helps to buffer the damaging impact of FBI and CIA surveillance, blacklisting and the rejection of his work by certain academics.
This stylishly produced film embeds us in the 1950s Cold War world when Algren worked. While we anticipate its appeal to cinephiles and general audiences: appearances and interviews with Algren scholars Bettina Drew (Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side), Brooke Horvath (Understanding Algren), Paul Buhle, Meaghan Emery and James Giles provide concise literary, social, and historic perspectives.
Nelson Algren wrote five novels, two collections of short stories, several road books, and countless other stories, reviews, and essays along with the prose poem Chicago: City on the Make. His work spanned six decades and speaks to generations of readers. While his best writing took place over 50 years ago, his focus on the fears and disenchantment with our consumer culture were prophetic and still hit the mark today.
Ilko Davidov founded Bulletproof Film in 1995, where he has produced, edited, and directed numerous award winning documentaries including producing and editing the much-acclaimed William S. Burroughs: A Man Within. In 2008, Davidov co-founded the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival (CIMMfest), an annual event highlighting the crossover of film and song. He also serves on the advisory board of the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs, CA. Ilko was born in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Mark Blottner has worked on independent video productions ranging from community-organized documentaries to the 1997 BBC TV documentary A Walk on the Wild Side as a researcher/fixer. He has an extensive history in corporate interactive design and development for a variety of distribution channels including mobile, web, and desktop digital media.
Denis Mueller has been making films for 30 years. Howard Zinn: You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train was broadcast on the Sundance Channel, Link TV and Free Speech Television. It was short-listed for an Academy Award nomination in 2005. He has recently updated his work, Soldiers of Peace. Denis\' various films have been released on DVD and have also seen theatrical distribution. Beginning with the award winning, FBI’s War on Black America, which was co-produced and co-directed with Deb Ellis, he has charted the abuses by the FBI and other government agencies for over 20 years and has built an audience surrounding the subject throughout the years. Denis is currently working on Peace Has No Borders with long time collaborator Deb Ellis.
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