(Nelson Algren was an American writer, perhaps best known for his novel The Man With a Golden Arm, which was turned into a film starring Frank Sinatra. His tales were about the working people of this world, the darker side of the street, and the lives of those who choose not to participate.—Ron)
Ron Jacobs: Hi Denis. To begin with, can you tell us what inspired/convinced you to make a film about Nelson Algren?
Denis Mueller: I lived in Wicker Park (one of Chicago’s oldest neighborhoods and home to Algren-Ron) in the late 80’s and 90’s. A friend of mine Mark Blottner started the film and I shot some things for him but Mark was a tech person. However, he caught lightning in a bottle with interviews of Kurt Vonnegut and Studs Terkel along with other Algren friends who are all dead so when he called me up in 2012 and asked me to finish this with him, I said yes. We interviewed people like Algren agent Clancy Sigal and Paul Buhle to give us a temper of the time along with author Bettina Drew who had written a terrific book about Algren. I recruited my friend Ilko Davidov to do post-production and become a third member of our team. He had been the editor and producer of a film about William Burroughs so I had a partner who had done a film about a writer. This was important. We decided that we would make a film noir documentary that lived in the nighttime while catching that repressive era and we would not make it like the average PBS film where they tell the story in the prelude because movies do not start like that.
There was another film about Algren, but it had no politics and was omitting everything that smacked of anything political at all despite the fact that Algren had over 1,000 pages of FBI files and was a self-described socialist. This could not be Algren’s legacy because omissions are the greatest lies in history so we set out to do the real Algren story and not some self-censored version of his life. It also pissed me off that they never had spoken to Bettina Drew, the author of Nelson Algren: A life on the Wild Side, so I thought that their film would be not tell the story correctly because they had not even bothered to call the person whose work is hailed as laying the groundwork for future studies about Algren.
Denis: Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, the Road is All is a film noir documentary about Nelson’s life. Nelson was more than a little self-destructive, so like a good Nelson Algren story, we wanted the film to include warts and all. How else could you intellectually do it if it was to be honest? I wanted it to feel more like his own work and the fact that we showed his shortcomings gave it more humanity.
I am an ace film researcher so we set out to build a visual poem. We had some footage of him and found others. I also used a short film by my friend Warren Leming and Ilko’s partner Carmine Cervi that saw Warren walking around as Algren in the nighttime of downtown Chicago. Perfect! We would use this as the lonely figure of Algren with the voiceover by Warren reading the literature of Algren. We also decided to layer the footage with the images of modern Chicago and these textured images from the past. We felt that it connected the past and the present. A terrific Chicago filmmaker named Tom Palazzollo had shot these heartrending images in the early 60’s of drunks stumbling along Clark Street and that reflected reality. We also wanted to tie it to Chicago visually so we began the film with this very funny prose poem by Algren about his city called “Candidate of the Blind.”
Ron: Also, without giving away too much of the story, can you tell us a little about his love affair with Simone de Beauvoir? That was a part of his life I knew nothing about.
Denis: It is a great story that I am now writing a screenplay about. Matt Damon can you hear me? He would be a great Algren. Matt did our narration for Zinn and is truly a man of the left. He is also very smart and a terrific person. Anyway de Beauvoir calls up Algren in 1947 and asks to meet him. Where do you take a feminist icon that asks to see Chicago? Why you take her to drunk tanks, to skid row and you talk about Haymarket, Eugene Debs along with what Chicago once was. She loved it and they became lovers. It is a passionate affair that is doomed to fail partially because of the FBI. This was the great love affair of both their lives. She is buried with his ring and Algren as one of our interviewees Meaghan Emory said, “ took her to the depths of her womanhood.”
Ron: I recently read a book about FBI government surveillance and dirty tricks against Black writers throughout the twentieth century. I understand from our earlier conversation (and from articles I’ve read) that Algren was also under surveillance. Can you talk about this a little? Why was the FBI interested in him? Was he a leftist or did they just consider him some kind of degenerate who in their suspicious mind needed watching?
Denis: Algren caught the eye of Hoover in 1942 when the Polish alliance disturbed by his book Never Come Morning whose main characters were Polish, a murderer and a prostitute. They did not like that so they got the book banned from the library. Hoover put him on the security index, which meant you would be jailed in time of national emergency. He also had strong ties to the old Communist Party and while never a party member, he had many friends who were. They called people like Algren fellow travelers. He also was outspoken for the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War against the fascists and that along with his being part of the John Reed clubs did not sit well with Hoover. The chief informant was a man named Howard Rushmore. Rushmore was an old red who became a professional fink. He was the editor of Confidential Magazine, which was a star chasing rag that hunted down gay people and Hollywood leftists. He went on and on until Hoover thought he was nuts. Algren then got his passport back. Rushmore was out to get him and he lied to the FBI. The FBI got Doubleday to cancel his book contract and with the help of the new critics like Leslie Fielder and Norman Podhoretz attacked Algren. They were stooges for the CIA so the entire US government was out to get him. The Partisan Review and Commentary had become rags for the CIA.
Ron: If you could pick one novel or short story by Algren as the one you consider his definitive work, which would it be? Why?
Denis: I think it would be The Man With the Golden Arm. It is nothing like that awful movie in which Algren is screwed by Preminger who was just a Hollywood jerk that was out to make a buck as Algren’s friend Dave Petz says in our film. It is a coming home story from WWII about limited choices among people who really never have a chance. Algren prose is second to none and he does not romanticize his characters but treats them as people who once had dreams but now are victims of their own lives. It is the contrast of the beauty of his writing and the destitute manner that is now the lives of his subjects. It’s that gap that makes Algren. He is the Dostoyevski of American literature. In fact I think he is better and certainly more progressive. As Chicago bookseller Stuart Brent says in our film, “ he is on the realm of a Chekov.”
Ron: You also mentioned that you are involved in making another film. This one is titled Peace Has No Borders and is about individuals who moved to Canada in resistance the US war in Iraq and Afghanistan. These folks were not draft resisters. They were soldiers who refused to fight in wars they considered to be wrong. Can you give us a summary?
Denis: Peace Has No Borders began in 2006. Deb Ellis and I saw an ad about this event that was called Peace Has No Borders. It was to take place on the peace bridge that goes from Buffalo, New York to Ft. Erie, Ontario. At the event, there would be draft dodgers and deserters from the Vietnam era, Vets For Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War along with the resisters of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. We started this film thinking of making a quick short film. That was our idea, but we soon found ourselves following this story. It is now nine years later and we are about to finish the film.
We did not know what we were getting into but were determined after the film Howard Zinn: You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train to do a piece about an activist movement so this seemed perfect for us. The story has huge ups and downs because reality has a funny way of changing your best plans but we kept going. Along with the Zinn film, Deb and I had also completed the FBI’s War on Black America. We thought we’d get money and this would sail through. However, our film ran counter to the narrative of how we talk about vets, which is to praise the vets and then forget about them after they return so this has been a struggle. We have tackled difficult questions during our 25 years of filmmaking and this was no exception. The funding community is not really that brave except for some small foundations, but we were very stubborn and pressed on anyway.
What we found out ran counter to what people had thought about the Vietnam era. Most of the people who crossed the border, especially as the war wore on, were deserters and over half of them decided to stay in Canada so these resisters had a path to follow but then Stephen Harper became the new Prime Minister of Canada and he was not Pierre Trudeau. Think of a very smart George Bush.
We finally settled on three resisters as characters and the War Resister Support Campaign, which was led by an amazing activist named Michelle Robidoux. What we had in mind was Harlan County USA in that it would be a great victory, but it ended up like Barbara Kopple’s other film American Dream. We were left with the question of how do you tell a story about what was a defeat despite being a heroic one? We are almost done now and are very pleased. You have to fight as Howard Zinn said and that the fight itself is a victory.
Ron: In your research for this film, what would you say was the most inspiring moment?
Denis: The most exciting moment to me was to see this rag tag army of activists and resisters hold off and beat back the entire power of the Canadian government. Think about it, they fought them to a standstill for seven years. The WRSC were really amazing. They just kept going on and on so we had to follow this to its logical conclusion. I was also inspired by the bravery of a guy named Chuck Wiley. Here is a man who oozes integrity. He witnessed these war crimes from the camera on the wings of the plane to his station on the aircraft carrier. It showed how the US was killing civilians by shooting them dead in the streets as they fled abandoned buildings so with one year left before he can get his pension, Chuck decides morally he cannot be part of this anymore. To the day I die, I will always consider him to be my hero as I do Michelle and the rest of the WRSC.
Ron: What was the most depressing?
Denis: Seeing Kimberly Rivera grow as a person from this Texas girl to a woman who found an identity as a peace activist. She ended up being deported and spending time in jail. In fact the resisters have been the only people punished for this illegal and immoral war. Cheney who lied to the entire country walks free and George Bush who led this disaster will get off with nothing happening to him along with the other chicken hawks. However, Kimberly Rivera is ripped from her baby’s arms to spend a year in jail for their lies. This was real sad. She saw the brutality of the American occupation and as a mother could no longer participate. The recruiter said she would not have to go to war but we know the service is one big lie so despite their assurances Kim found herself in Iraq. She just wanted health insurance for her kids and that is why she joined.
But the most depressing was when the WRSC were on the verge of political victory in 2010 and then were betrayed by Liberal parliamentarian Michael Ignatieff. Ignatieff who went on to lead the Liberals to their worst defeat in their history and now teaches government at Harvard. Ignatieff had promised support for the resisters and this vote was more than just a recommendation to Harper but a bill that would have legal standing, but he sneaked out the back with several of his stooges when the vote came up. They had the votes and could have settled this whole thing, but Ignatieff took back his pledge. He was a supporter of the Iraq War and is hailed as this intellectual but in reality he is an American Exceptionalist who put himself and his disaster of a campaign before his given word. A perfect fit for the Ivy League who has given us some of the biggest killers and liars in history.
Ron: I recently interviewed a serviceman in Germany who deserted because of his opposition to the same wars. He has been in a sort of limbo ever since while he waits for a determination on his political asylum. So far, the German courts have not turned him down, nor have they given him asylum. I know that in Canada it is becoming more difficult for the war resisters to remain there–in large part because of the right-wing Harper government. What are your thoughts regarding this? What did you discover?
Denis: I am not sure what the present status is in the German courts but what Harper has done flies in the face of Canadian tradition. Canada has been throughout its history a safe haven for Americans fleeing persecution. Look at the loyalists who were forced out of the colonies after the American Revolution and then there was the Underground Railroad so when Vietnam comes there is a tradition in effect, but now Harper changes this because he wants Canada to be a more war-like country. Think of USA light. It is sad. Canada had a very positive place in the world and what we do not need is another warlike country.
They have passed laws that will make it impossible for Americans to go to Canada again to flee from any unjust war. Jason Kenney is the other villain in our film. He fills the roll well. Kenney is the real enemy to the resisters and keeps repeating lies throughout the film. We never set out to do a film about the soul of Canada, but we ended up making one. They have an election coming up in October so maybe the remaining resisters will get to stay. We hope so. It has been a journey for Deb and I that has been filled with many high’s and more low’s, but we are now finishing and like Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, the Road is All, I think Peace Has No Borders is a special film.
Ron: Thanks. Good talking with you.
Denis Mueller has produced and directed with Deb Ellis, The FBI’s War on Black America, which screened on the PBS station KQED in San Francisco and WNET in New York. His most successful film, produced and directed with Deb Ellis, is Howard Zinn: You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train. It was released nationally by First Run Features and has appeared on the Sundance Channel, Link TV and the Free Speech Channel. His new films are Peace Has No Borders with Deb Ellis and Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, the Road is All with Ilko Davidov and Mark Blottner.
Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: email@example.com.