Writer, wit and craftsman, science fiction icon and cultural iconoclast, Kurt Vonnegut‘s long and storied career saw him climb from penny-pinching obscurity to celebrity, wealth and fame, a novelist whose every book remains in print and whose pithiest remarks have become Internet memes for the ages.
“Everything is nothing…with a twist.” “There is enough love in this world for everybody, if people will just look.” “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, as there’s less cleaning up to do afterward.” “I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
“Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time” is a celebration of his life and career, explaining his work through his biography and the tragic tests of his years on Earth. It’s pretty close to definitive, and if it isn’t it at least points to the treasure trove of material there is about him that future documentaries might draw from, and lifts the writer’s profile in the public consciousness above cult status fourteen years after his death.
Filmmaker Robert B. Weide, fresh off producing a TV documentary about the Marx Brothers, decided to approach his favorite novelist with the idea of making a film biography of Vonnegut back in the ’80s, when Weide was young and Vonnegut had finally come down off his “Slaughterhouse: Five” tidal wave of adoration. They started collaborating in 1988. And now, with the intervention of co-director Don Argott (“Framing John DeLorean”), everything that was collected and filmed over those intervening decades has been turned into an entertaining What Makes a Great Writer documentary.
Interviewing Vonnegut many times over the years, and then Vonnegut’s daughters and son and the four boys of his late sister that he took in and helped raise, as well as Vonnegut scholars and editors and fans like Morley Safer (who died in 2016), showing us draft after corrected and changed draft of his books, scenes from the films made from “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Mother Night” and a play he wrote, and filling in around the edges with Vonnegut’s many witty, laughter-filled public appearances and even warm taped messages saved from Weide’s answering machine, “Unstuck in Time” thoroughly dissects the life and the work.
The film probes at Vonnegut’s half-reluctantly discussed experiences in World War II, a POW captured in the Battle of the Bulge, imprisoned in the slaughterhouse district of the historic, scenic and arts-filled “city without sin,” Dresden, Germany, which was firebombed into oblivion in February of 1945, with Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners protected by the bowels of the abattoir where they were locked up.
Thanks to the extensive presence of The Man Himself, “Unstuck” is almost a performance piece — Vonnegut showing us the family boat dock where he “discovered” the imaginary planet of Tralfamadore, featured in “Slaughterhouse,” visiting old family homes and discoursing on his general feeling of being “Unstuck in time,” a major theme of that break-through novel. But the novels, collectively?
“My books are jokes — mosaics of jokes.”
We also see and hear how he came to believe in the value of “extended families,” not just blood relations but people you connect with wherever you are. As we catch him sympathetically chatting up and hearing out his less famous contemporaries at his high school reunion, and pick up anecdotes about his generosity with fans and strangers who’d stop him on the street, you have to wonder if he wasn’t the most approachable famous author who ever lived.
A biographer compares him to Mark Twain, calling him a writer you “read to understand the 20th century the way Mark Twain is read to under the the 19th.”
And along the way, filmmaker Weide himself appears, giving “some sort of explanation” for what took him so long to finish the movie, emphasizing the closeness of the “extended family” relationship and filling us in on how his own life and career progressed in the intervening years.
The “performance piece” warps from a one-man show to an ungainly two-hander.
Weide’s “explanation” seems obvious. He got busy, sure. Weide even scripted and produced a pretty good Vonnegut big screen adaptation, “Mother Night.” But mainly he had to have been overwhelmed. A TV and public-appearance friendly writer with an extensive literary canon, the sheer volume of Vonnegutiana to sift through would have daunted anyone.
But that doesn’t excuse Weide’s putting himself in the film to such a large extent that he distracts from his subject. Journalistically, it’s called “injecting yourself into a story.” It can be as simple as giving a couple of personal reflections, maybe even based on in-person meetings, in a profile or obituary. Anything much beyond that and you’ve got to take care to avoid making the story/film, etc. about you.
Weide isn’t a journalist. But his constant presence in “Unstuck” begins with his “some explanation is necessary” about the years going by, the interviews and Vonnegut TV appearances, graduation addresses, speeches and public readings that Vonnegut would pass on to him, making Weide “sort of his archivist.” But as the film goes on, Weide’s interjections drift from “necessary” and kind of understandable to needy, annoying and finally insufferable.
When you watch video of Weide accept his Emmy for directing Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” you might be tempted to remember that TV is a producer’s medium, that directors are near-anonymous hired technicians there. Attaching yourself to a great writer corrects that relative obscurity. And the mind might wander to what David would say and do in a “Curb” episode about a hanger-on, even a friend, who promised to do something decades before and hasn’t gotten around to finishing it and crosses over into clinging to him to absorb some of that fame.
That attention-hogging doesn’t ruin “Unstuck in Time,” but it does mute its impact. As good as the film is, we sense that it could have been better, with more time spent tracking down fellow writers-admirers (John Irving pops up…once), others placing Vonnegut on the pantheon of science fiction. But that would have cut into Weide’s screen time.
Still, “Unstuck” points the way towards that next piece of cinematic Vonnegut scholarship, documentaries about Vonnegut to come. Those filmmakers will start out knowing how much is out there about him, hopefully archived in (mostly) one place — preferably a university. And it won’t take them 40 years to finish it.
Rating: unrated, some profanity
Cast: Kurt Vonnegut, Robert E. Weide, Edie Vonnegut, Nanny Vonnegut, and John Irving
Credits: Directed by Robert B. Weide and Don Argott. An IFC release.
Running time: 2:06