‘KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME,’ a Brilliant, Heartfelt Documentary by the Director of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’
Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) is perhaps one of the most insightful novelists and humorists of the twentieth-twenty-first century. Robert B. Weide, whose funny bone and fascination with great comedians (he won awards for his work on his documentaries about Lennie Bruce and W.C. Fields) found him helping Larry David launch Curb Your Enthusiasm which he then directed the first five years of the show, winning awards.
That Weide adored Vonnegut as a teenager and was influenced in his career by Vonnegut’s sardonic humor and philosophical, dire wisdom that translated into crazy characters and sci-fi-like plots, seems a no brainer; for at heart, Vonnegut, like all comedians creates humor and irony from soul hell and torment. Where Weide stands out from the rest of the Vonnegut acolytes is that early on in his struggling career, he contacted Vonnegut expressing interest in making a documentary about his hero. When Vonnegut accepted, Weide began the long journey (almost 40 years) to get the film made.
However, like much of what we experience in life, it is the journey that is paramount, and for both Vonnegut and Weide, the journey of working together, connecting and becoming friends seemed to be the most vital enjoyment of their collaboration. That eventually, Weide was able to sift through the mounds of Vonnegut pictures, family films, Weide interviews with family, and Vonnegut on trains and in cars and taking stock of the video clips of his speaking tours to cobble together a noteworthy and maverick film about Vonnegut’s life, will be treasured by fans and newbees alike.
Most importantly, the film introduces an entirely new generation of ironists and satirists to Vonnegut’s soulful miseries turned into sardonic social commentary. Vonnegut always found the human comedy of politics, cultural idiocies and their attendant propaganda pushers cannon fodder for his word bazookas. Weide, who wrote and produced the film and co-directed it with Don Argott, with his editing team, selected the most salient Vonnegut quotes from his works and interspersed them with clips of his videoed tours to pepper a chronicle of Vonnegut’s life in a back and forth circular narration. When useful, Weide has Sam Waterson read some of the quotes from the novels, etc. The rendering is enthralling and what emerges is the everyman that even the most jaded of nihilists will find themselves agreeing with, despite themselves.
What makes the film extraordinary is that in becoming so familiar with his subject, Weide’s conveyance to present him is as a documentary in a documentary. In structure, it becomes downright Vonnegutesque. Vonnegut continually interrupted the flow of action in some of his novels by interjecting the writer’s voice, indeed, perhaps his alter ego in an absurd fashion as we see in drawings in Breakfast of Champions.
Likewise, Weide interrupts his Vonnegut chronicle to interject his thoughts about Vonnegut and his own life in making the documentary. Weide parallels the time period of his life with his ongoing interviews and communications with Vonnegut, critics and his children. He acts almost as an apologist would in averring and showing why it took him so long to make the film. What I find so memorable is that we see both men aging into success and/or the next stages of their lives. It is ironic that now, after his death, Vonnegut is turning over a new chapter in having his legacy brought forth once more; interestingly, though not a lot of fans followed him here, though he never left off writing. With his revitalized legacy in Weide’s film, he will be rediscovered, discovered, read and reread, and appreciated or damned for his great levity and sage quips and droll, nightmare plot scenarios…and his essays and short stories.
As a writer I found the documentary in a documentary structure intriguing and rather tongue-in cheek. It twits the documentary genre because Weide makes it very clear that he is completely enamored of this great social satirist and writer and thrilled that he was his friend. That intimacy and revelation was Weide’s choice and at one point, he also makes it clear that with all that he has put into this film, there is much more that was left out, i.e. the personal moments that happened between the two friends.
Rather than to point out all of the aspects of the Vonnegut chronicle, which Weide seems to leave no stone unturned in Vonnegut’s life, he shows the arc of Vonnegut’s career influences and development. Weide jumps around which makes the documentary intriguing, as he makes connections with his own insights and life, then jumps back and forth, past to present to past to current time. Superb. None of this is in chronological order per se; it is in thematic order. For example we discover late into the film that Vonnegut’s mom committed suicide. WHAT! We get to draw the conclusions as Vonnegut discusses how they found her.
We discover how and where Vonnegut grew up, his joining the service and fighting in WWII to experience the seminal aftermath of the bombing of Dresden, Germany which haunted him for all of his life even after he attempted to expurgate it in his first novel of great success, Slaughterhouse Five. The novel, was a war story about a man who’d become “unstuck in time,” with an ability to leap through life, out of time rather like the mystical experience Vonnegut explains he had in Germany when he envisioned the disaster of Dresden before it happened.
Weide leads us to discover how he developed his humor and social insights about technology; his brother with whom he was close was a world class scientist, forward thinking and forward moving. At times Vonnegut lived hand to mouth after he worked in the GE empire in Schenectady and left it because writing copy was nullifying. But his first wife encouraged him to write fiction; he supported himself writing short stories in the hey day of short story writers, for magazines like Colliers, until TV came and the market dried up. A key turning point in his life and career was the death of his sister and his brother-in-law. He accepted responsibility for taking in their four sons and raising them in a house of chaos. The interviews with Vonnegut’s children are priceless.
Vonnegut’s struggles were the nerve-wracking journey that ended in bankruptcy and forced the family to move and Vonnegut to teach to make some money until he struck gold with Slaughterhouse Five, became a celebrity, hobnobbed with famous writers and divorced his wife, though he stayed close to his three children. In the republication of the novels he wrote before Slaughterhouse Five, he earned enough money to be comfortable, if not happy; indeed, he became more ironic and annoyed and wrote about it with less success and popularity which he never returned to after the 1970s. It was around this time that Weide found him and the interviews with Vonnegut, his children and noted writers and friends and Vonnegut’s novel writing and speaking engagements continued, though his popularity waned. Interestingly, they collaborated on a film based on Vonnegut’s Mother Night, which was hugely unsuccessful.
Though some critics of the film find it distracting that Weide interjects himself in the film with their relationship, I found the clips profound. Weide is revealing the decades long influence Vonnegut had upon his life and career. Perhaps, it is one of the reasons that Weide even made the film at all; to get down as much as he could that fans would appreciate, for they understand Vonnegut’s profound influence. Yet, in what Weide left out, only he will be reminded of the most vital and personal portions he alone experienced, that he keeps as a treasure to himself. For those who don’t like Vonnegut, it’s a ho hum. For fans, their relationship humanizes Vonnegut who had clay feet after his divorce and falling off the Best Seller lists into a kind of writer celebrity oblivion.
However, as one does acknowledge with close friends, all of it, even what might be the little insignificances are important. And enough of the personal intimacies come through between Weide and Vonnegut and his family (smoking a Pall Mall cigarette with his daughter en memoriam) that I found myself broken-hearted that I got to experience Vonnegut in a new way, and that he left this planet and I was too caught up in my own life to stop a moment and reflect about his books and why they so moved me at the time. Though I was a great Vonnegut fan in college, I stopped reading him, put off by his son’s “revelations” about himself and his father.
For me and for others, Weide’s film opens up a new door to appreciate Vonnegut the social critic and voice of thunder railing against the worst of human ills. And we get to appreciate the how and why he was who he was, an American man who carved a place for himself in the minds of individuals to influence their thinking philosophically. For that alone this film is vitally current. Vonnegut fits with our time even more so than the time that found him resonant.
KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME is available in theaters and on VOD
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