Emerging as a seer of the hippie generation, author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. has had quite an impact on Western, and particularly American culture. I remember reading and being fascinated by many of his works, notably Slaughterhouse-Five Or The Children’s Crusade and Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut’s life was rich and complex, however, and a surprising amount of his material came from his own life. Seeking to capture this, filmmaker and eventual friend Bob Weide began to film footage for a documentary about Kurt almost 40 years ago. Life kept interrupting and eventually Weide began to suspect that he’d never actually finish the film, but instead end up as an archivist for Kurt’s life. Finally, years after Vonnegut’s passing, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time has been released.
It’s no surprise during that extraordinary period of time that Weide and Vonnegut became close friends. This significantly changes the tone of the documentary in a heart-warming way; it’s not an intellectualized and abstract biography that simply starts at birth and ends at death, but instead a rambling and temporally lose tale that seeks to answer both the questions of who Kurt was and from where his inspiration arose.
During World War II, 20yo Kurt was captured by the Germans and ended up a prisoner of war, sent to the beautiful and historic city of Dresden before the destructive Allied firebombing of the city in February 1945. He was put to work in a factory, and after the terrible bombing occurred, it was Kurt and his fellow POWs who were tasked with the horrifying job of finding and extracting all the many bodies buried in the rubble. It took him dozens of rewrites and 25 years to finally tell that story in his masterwork Slaughterhouse-Five. It offers a wry and humorous tale of the horrors of war, told through the extraordinary adventures of protagonist Billy Pilgrim. But Pilgrim isn’t just any young man caught up in the madness of war, as readers quickly learn, Billy is unstuck in time. His life transpires without any temporal logic.
The book had a profound impact on its generation and remains a significant contribution to 20th Century literature. For example, it’s quite likely that Slaughterhouse-Five was an inspiration for filmmakers like Christopher Nolan (Inception, Dunkirk, Tenet), who has tackled both the horrors of war and the fluidity of time itself in so many of his brilliant films. Some critics also believe that films like Arrival were inspired by Vonnegut, with their exploratory sense of time and effect, then cause.
But Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time isn’t just about his greatest novel, but about the man himself and his long and varied life. Viewers learn that his greatest inspirations were undoubtedly his affectionate older sister (who was the emotional opposite to their distant and withdrawn mother). Vonnegut became an avowed humanist and sporadic member of the Unitarian church. He was always quite funny – “showing off as the baby of the family” he’d undoubtedly say – and was a popular and engaging public speaker.
Given the title, I was hoping that the documentary would also be fast and loose with the order of Vonnegut’s life story, but perhaps ironically, Unstuck in Time is very rooted in time and in telling the linear story of Vonnegut’s life. Perhaps that’s the curse of a documentary film, that it can’t be too innovative or exploratory lest the documentary itself becomes the thing of interest, rather than the subject being documented. And yet, it is ironic in that light that writer and director Bob Weide ends up being a major factor in the story.
During the forty years that he slowly assembled this documentary, Weide did quite a few other projects, including a number of other documentaries on well-known 60s and 70s cultural icons and, after receiving a call from friend and comedian Larry David, ended up directing the entire Curb Your Enthusiasm series, which earned him an Emmy award. All of this, however, kept pushing out the film. Billy Pilgrim would say “and so it goes.”
Nonetheless, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time proves a compelling and engaging documentary on a very interesting man. For example, he came up with the idea of the mythic alien planet of Tralfamador when he was 10. It showed up decades later in Slaughterhouse-Five. As with most writers, Vonnegut did not enjoy immediate success, and at one particularly low point ended up opening one of the first Saab dealerships in the United States. It did not go well. Every life experience eventually showed up in one of his many books, however. Vonnegut readers are definitely familiar with the fictional sci-fi author “Kilgore Trout”, who appears in quite a few Vonnegut novels, but few might realize he was based on the sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon. Does Kilgore actually represent Vonnegut? Quite possibly.
His life included a variety of tragedies leading him to a philosophy that encouraged embracing what happiness you can find and enjoying good experiences as a way to manage and cope with bad. His later books were about the loss of extended family, after the suicide of his mother. In the 1970s critics savaged his works, but he was focused on people, not critics so seemingly didn’t care. His final novel Timequake proved a success, followed by a tremendously successful anthology of his short works entitled A Man Without a Country. Ultimately, he was a proponent of us finding extended family, saying that “We all need more people in our lives”.
Ultimately, though, does Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time offer up any insight into the mind of the author or explain where his ideas came from? For the most part, yes. It was a life blessed with success and cursed with tragedy, a journey through troubled eras of American and world history both experienced and felt profoundly. Unstuck in Time ends with a poignant, but somewhat disappointingly traditional temporal narrative, a personal document of both Vonnegut and his friend and documentarian Bob Weide.
Recommended for both fans of Kurt Vonnegut Jr and people who are curious to learn more about one of the most important voices of his generation.
and so it goes.