Film

Review: Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time Celebrates the Life and Weirdness of the Slaughterhouse Five Author

You don’t expect to see the film director as a major character in his own documentary. But in the case of Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, director Robert B. Weide (“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth) sort of apologizes at the beginning. “When you take almost 40 years to make a film, you owe someone an explanation.” As it turns out, over the course of those 40 years, Weide and his subject became close friends and participants in each other’s lives.

The film, which runs more than two hours, is a loving and intensive look at Vonnegut’s life and career. The life part is made possible by Weide’s receipt of a treasure trove of family movies turned over to him by Vonnegut’s older brother, Bernard. Those images are “amazing, crisp, black and white films” that show the child Kurt and his family in their life of privilege in his hometown of Indianapolis through their loss of home and wealth during the Depression.

Image courtesy IFC Films.

Weide wrote the script and co-directs with Don Argott (Framing John DeLorean, Believer). They focus on Vonnegut’s writing career, which was preceded by years as a corporate flack for GE in Schenectady, NY (inspiring his first novel, Player Piano). Vonnegut was successful as a short story writer and began writing novels when the era of magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s ended with the explosion of television programming in the 1950s.

The 1969 publication of Slaughterhouse Five, an antiwar novel, hit the counter-culture movement at the right time. It was a huge success and made Vonnegut’s career. His earlier books—such as Cat’s Cradle, Sirens of Titan and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater—gained new fans and cemented his reputation with the baby boomer generation.

Slaughterhouse Five was based on Vonnegut’s experience in Dresden during and after its destruction near the end of WWII. He and his battalion were captured during the Battle of the Bulge and transferred by train to Dresden, where they were imprisoned in an old slaughterhouse. Yes, it was Schlachthaus fünf. In February 1945, Allied bombers dropped thousands of tons of bombs and incendiary devices on the city, destroying the city center and killing about 25,000 people. Vonnegut and a few buddies were hiding in a meatlocker.  “We all came out,” Vonnegut says, “and the city was gone.” The POWs were put to work digging out bodies. His iconic line, “And so it goes,” is used many times in the book, referring to death. Vonnegut spent years writing the book, apparently finding it difficult to deal with the trauma of war.

The film’s title comes from Vonnegut’s description of the book’s protagonist and Vonnegut stand-in, Billy Pilgrim, who was “unstuck in time.”

Vonnegut was married with three children and living in Barnstable, Mass., when his play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, was produced in New York with great success. This inspired another move by Vonnegut; he left wife and family to live in New York for the rest of his life. (Another woman—photographer Jill Krementz—was part of the family disruption.)

The film spends some time on the 1973 publication of Breakfast of Champions, probably Vonnegut’s last successful book for some time. Toward the end of his life, Vonnegut was writing essays on current affairs that appeared in the Chicago-based political magazine In These Times.

Weide and Argott do a good job of balancing Vonnegut’s family stories and his writing career. I’m a big fan of Vonnegut’s work and I think most people who will want to see this film are too.  But Weide includes too much of himself and his personal life in the film. Once he becomes part of the film as interviewer, conversant and filmmaker, he should have stopped. We don’t need to go to his wedding or learn about his wife’s illness.

I was also disappointed about a missing piece of the film. One of my favorite Vonnegut memories is what started as a public TV film titled “Between Time and Timbuktu,” a science-fiction comedy created out of bits and pieces of Vonnegut books with contributions from comedians Bob and Ray (Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding). The film was directed by Fred Barzyk and written by David O’Dell. I’ve seen it several times over the years since it was produced in 1974; you can find clips of it on YouTube. The film was a cultural touchstone for a while, so I’m surprised Weide and Argott don’t mention it.

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is now playing in select theaters and available to rent/purchase on streaming platforms.

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