In keeping with Kurt Vonnegut’s mischievous “meta” style, Unstuck in Time is a documentary about what happens in the making of one. Directed by Robert B. Weide, a fan who approached Vonnegut to film him forty years ago, but has only now got round to finishing, it weaves together Vonnegut’s comic-tragic life story with a poignant portrayal of the father-son-like relationship that developed while the movie stalled. Known for his work on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasmand before that for documentaries about groundbreaking comedians (the Marx Brothers, WC Fields, Lenny Bruce), Weide gives us Vonnegut the war-traumatized and hard-grafting writer as well as the “screamingly funny” person he was in private and on the lecture circuit that he worked later in life.
The film takes its title from an early line in Slaughterhouse-Five: “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time”. Like this most famous of Vonnegut’s books – a novel from 1969 about the Second World War that turned him into an “oracle” for the Vietnam generation – it is a study of the light work the mind makes of devastating experience. Having been a prisoner of war in Dresden, and a survivor of the Allied bombing there, Vonnegut used his damaged protagonist, Billy, whose casts him into a fantasy of traveling back and forward in time, to make a comedy out of sublimation. Here, Weide has achieved what Vonnegut readers have been attempting for years: to connect this lost sublimating figure in the story to the lost sublimating figure who wrote it. He does so lovingly, showing us a man who would self-mock his way through pain, but had much less of a handle on the process than he pretended.
Vonnegut describes himself as an “old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls”, and his eyes glisten as he tries to laugh off questions about the war: “Neighborhood dogs when I grew up had far greater influence on what I am today than the fire-bombing of Dresden”. Weide then brings in his daughters Edie and Nanny to echo our suspicions: “Kurt’s seen too much … he’s full of it … did he really say that?”
Weide tells Vonnegut’s story through interviews (with Vonnegut himself, his children, critics, publishers and authors who knew him, such as John Irving), and the story of their friendship through outtakes and personal answer-machine messages. Rather than feeling corny or self-indulgent, the bloopers have the tenor of the best bits in Curb Your Enthusiasm – “Up your ass”, Vonnegut says to Weide, Larry David-style, when asked to repeat a line for the camera. These moments reveal how genuinely self-deprecating and silly and fun the writer was (“screamingly funny” was Vonnegut’s own self-description, delivered twinkle-eyed to a TV interviewer).
Such silliness crashes against the horrors of his Dresden experience – told through real footage of bombs exploding and bodies piled up, flick-book-style animation and clips from the 1972 film adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five. And against a series of early deaths in his family – first the suicide of his mother, whose body Vonnegut discovered as a young man, then his sister, who died of cancer in her thirties, two days after her husband had perished in a train crash . Already struggling financially as parents of three, Vonnegut and his wife, Jane, sacrificed a lot by adopting his sister’s four orphaned children.
That sacrifice, his warm smoker’s laugh and his fatherliness towards Weide are contradicted by his nephews’ memories of a frightening temper. Like many successful writers, Vonnegut comes across as a sweet mentor, an attractive after-dinner speaker, but manically temperamental in his family life. If that mania was a product of his trauma, the bond he found with Weide is presented as part of his healing. The affection his children say they missed from him comes through in countless recorded messages to Weide and his wife, Linda: “I want to thank you for your friendship”; “I hope you love each other as much as I love both of you”.
True to this paradox, and to macho novelist form, Vonnegut left Jane just as her long-standing faith in him was paying off. She was the first reader to believe in his genius (she wrote to publishers telling them her husband was a “potential Chekhov”), and jilting her soon after Slaughterhouse-Five made his name is a nasty stain. Remarkably, according to their daughters, his ex-wife remained proud and in awe of Vonnegut’s talent even after this betrayal.
Vonnegut’s apotheosis in the late 1960s is handled thrillingly – we get Rolling Stones-like rock blasted over footage of the Vietnam War, and visits to their ramshackle family home from Norman Mailer, then Peter Fonda (who had just finished Easy Rider). We hear from the children what it was like to go from Vonnegut borrowing their paper-round money to Life magazine dropping by for an interview. In the next decade, when the critics turned against his accessibly satirical tone, Vonnegut became a fixture in a popular culture, appearing in ads and teen films, and on the university speech circuit: a novelist turned grandfatherly standup comedian.
Much, understandably, is made of similarities with Mark Twain, to whom Vonnegut bore a physical resemblance and after whom he named his son. The private faxed remarks to Weide we see here are even more Twain-like than those that made it into print: “Life is no way to treat an animal”; “Dear Future Generations, Please accept our apologies. We were roaring drunk on petroleum.” Like Samuel Beckett, and many important postwar writers, Vonnegut was also influenced in his slapstick treatment of heavy themes by the silent comedies he grew up watching. Besides being persuaded to work with Weide by the latter’s film about the Marx Brothers, he was besotted with Laurel and Hardy, who gave him “permission not to take life seriously”.
The documentary is full of such titbits. Vonnegut fans will be especially tickled by his story about the provenance of Tralfamadore, the made-up planet Billy Pilgrim visits in Slaughterhouse-Five. And to hear him explain what he learned about writing from Nelson Algren and Richard Yates when he joined their teaching community for two years at the University of Iowa in the mid-1960s. Most revealingly, Unstuck in Time offers insight into the shaping and reshaping of Slaughterhouse-Five: Vonnegut’s attempts to “crack the code” to his experience in Dresden through a twenty-year wrestle with narrative voice, form and style. Success led to a countercultural status on a par with J.D. Salinger in the 1950s (as one news report puts it), although Weide goes on to describe him as the “anti-Salinger” for the ease with which he took to fame.
Unstuck in Time achieves more than its meta-documentary format promises. By presenting Vonnegut through his relationship with the director, and making this about the process of growing to love him as a friend, Weide reveals a complexity to his subject that is missing from most straight bio-docs. Recollections from and about the man are set against a friendship in real time, and intimate moments that explain him much better than his successes or failures. Unlike similar recent experiments – Coodie Simmons’s film Jen-Yuhsabout his old friend Kanye West, for example, or Tom Berninger’s Mistaken for Strangersabout his brother Matt, lead singer with the band the National – this story of a close relationship with a famous figure deepens rather than distracts from our understanding of him.
Guy Stevensonis a lecturer in English at Goldsmiths and Queen Mary University of London. He is the author ofAnti-Humanism in the Counterculture2020
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