By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 27, 2021)
In a 2019 review of George Roy Hill’s 1974 film Slaughterhouse-Five, I wrote:
Film adaptations of Kurt Vonnegut stories have a checkered history; from downright awful (Slapstick of Another Kind) or campy misfires (Breakfast of Champions) to passable time killers (Happy Birthday, Wanda June and Mother Night). For my money, your best bets are Jonathan Demme’s 1982 PBS American Playhouse short Who Am I This Time? and this 1974 feature film by director George Roy Hill.
Michael Sacks stars as milquetoast daydreamer Billy Pilgrim, a WW2 vet who weathers the devastating Allied firebombing of Dresden as a POW. After the war, he marries his sweetheart, fathers a son and daughter and settles into a comfortable middle-class life, making a living as an optometrist.
A standard all-American postwar scenario…except for the part where a UFO lands on his nice, manicured lawn and spirits him off to the planet Tralfamadore, after which he becomes permanently “unstuck” in time, i.e., begins living (and re-living) his life in random order.
Now I am transported to 2021, the year I discovered that the best film adaptation of a Kurt Vonnegut story (Slaughterhouse-Five aside) is…Kurt Vonnegut’s life story, which is the subject of Robert B. Weide and Dan Argoff’s documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. One could argue that Vonnegut, a WW2 vet who weathered the devastating Allied firebombing of Dresden as a POW, was in fact telling his life story in novels like Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, and God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.
Vonnegut’s postwar scenario was also not unlike Billy Pilgrim’s. He married his first wife Jane Cox, and they had a son and two daughters. In 1957, their household nearly doubled in size in the wake of an almost unbearably sad family tragedy. Vonnegut’s sister Alice died of cancer, only two days after her husband lost his life in a commuter train crash. Kurt and Jane welcomed three of the late couple’s children into their family.
Of course, Vonnegut’s life does not begin and end with Slaughterhouse-Five; while it sold like gangbusters and made him an instant darling of the literary set, his was no “overnight success” story. By the time of the book’s publication in 1969, Vonnegut had already been toiling at his typewriter for nearly 20 years in relative obscurity (although his 1963 religious satire Cat’s Cradle had become a cult favorite with college students). In the meantime, he still had to punch the clock to support his family (including a stint during the 1950s with the ad department for General Electric in Schenectady, New York).
Despite his breakthrough success (or arguably due to it), the 1970s were an emotional roller coaster for Vonnegut; his first marriage fell apart, he holed up in a New York City apartment and dealt with chronic depression and writer’s block for several years, and his bi-polar son suffered a mental breakdown. He found his mojo again by channeling family travails into two of his 70s novels, Breakfast of Champions and Slapstick (not popular with critics, but therapeutic). He remarried in 1979, and enjoyed a career resurgence soon after.
Fast-forward (or become “unstuck” if you will) to 1982. Burgeoning filmmaker and avid Vonnegut fan Robert Weide sent him a letter proposing a documentary portrait. A fair amount of time passed with no reply. As Weide himself recounts in the film, just when he’d given up hope that he’d ever hear back, he received a handwritten letter from Vonnegut giving his blessing. An over-the-moon Weide started work on the film in 1988.
When you consider the film’s belated 2021 release, it goes without saying a project nearly 40 years in the making is nothing, if not a labor of love. Love, as I see it, is the film’s theme. It’s about the love of creating, the love of writing, the love of a reader for their favorite author, and ultimately, the love of family and the love of a long friendship.
Weide (best known as a director and executive producer on Curb Your Enthusiasm) offers an endearing apologia early on for being “one of those directors” who interjects himself into his documentary; to his credit he stays fairly unobtrusive (over the decades the filmmaker and his subject developed and sustained a genuine father and son closeness until Vonnegut’s death in 2007).
This is no hagiography; Weide doesn’t sugarcoat the bad patches nor the darker sides of Vonnegut’s personality (“genius is pain”, an English poet once sang). The result is an intimate, inspiring, funny and deeply moving portrait of one of the greatest American writers of the 20th Century. Weide’s film beautifully illustrates how loss and trauma can be spun into gold by the alchemy of an inventive imagination. And so it goes.