"Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time"
“Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time” explores a fan’s admiration for, and friendship with, a great – if flawed – American writer, Dan Webster says in his review.
Besides being a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, “Movies 101” host Dan Webster writes the Movies & More blog for Spokane7.com.
It’s debatable who first cautioned us about wanting to meet our heroes. Some claim it was Marcel Proust in his novel “Remembrance of Things Past.” Others say Gustave Flaubert in his novel “Madame Bovary.” Since both authors wrote in French, it’s difficult to quote either of them exactly – in English anyway.
And anyway the sentiment may well predate both. In any event, it endures, having been passed on as sage advice about not expecting too much from those you admire because they’re bound to disappoint you.
Yet like many accepted truisms, the advice doesn’t always apply. It didn’t, at least not completely, for filmmaker Robert B. Weide. A screenwriter, producer and director, Weide parlayed his high school obsession with the novelist Kurt Vonnegut into a 40-year effort to make what would become the documentary feature “Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time.”
Weide would seem a perfect candidate to capture Vonnegut in film. For all the serious topics Vonnegut addressed over the course of his career, his trademark tone was never less than gently comic. And this was true even of his masterpiece, the 1969 novel “Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death.” That book is Vonnegut’s fictional portrait of his own real-life experiences as a World War II American soldier who witnessed first-hand the disastrous firebombing of the German city Dresden.
Besides being part of the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” production team, Larry David’s comedy series for HBO, Weide is known for having directed documentaries on such comic legends as the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and Lenny Bruce. And he penned an adaptation of Vonnegut’s novel “Mother Night” that became a 1996 movie directed by Keith Gordon.
Yet he was just 23 when he first approached Vonnegut in 1982 (who by then was in his early 60s) with a request to do a documentary. To his surprise, and delight, Vonnegut said yes. And so began a project that never seemed to develop much past occasional, yet regular, meetings that Weide would film. The result was a box full of footage and a relationship that grew ever more personal as the years passed.
Even when Vonnegut died in 2007 at the age of 84, Weide still hadn’t come up with a plan on how to meld all that footage into a cogent film. Finally, though, he and co-director Don Argott decided to include Weide himself into the project – something, Weide claims, he never wanted. And so even as Vonnegut himself, mirroring his “Slaughterhouse-Five” protagonist Billy Pilgrim, is seen as someone “unstuck in time,” the same holds true for Weide.
For his part, Vonnegut’s struggle is two-fold: his happy family life disrupted by the Great Depression, which caused his family to face hard financial times, and the deaths both of his mother and beloved sister. Complicating things, too, was his Dresden experience, a horror that haunted Vonnegut and one he struggled with for years to find a way to explore in fiction.
For Weide, the problem was how to reconcile the project with his own career, which was growing ever more busy. It’s clear, too, that he was struggling to make the movie about a guy he saw both as a friend and as that hero he admired as a teenager.
Especially, as the film makes clear, that Vonnegut didn’t always fit the role of hero. He wasn’t the best father to his children – all seven of whom, four of whom were adopted, are interviewed for the film. As much as they might have loved him, they feared him, too, his mercurial presence causing them to wonder which father would show up today – the happy one who was pleased with his writing or the ogre who would emerge from his writer’s nook to scream at them for making too much noise.
And as a husband? Once he earned fame, Vonnegut abandoned his family – and the woman, the former Jane Marie Cox, who had supported him during his years of struggle. As the movie makes clear, fame can sometimes be ruinous.
In the end, though, Weide portrays Vonnegut as simply human, talented but flawed, an artist whose fate is that dreamed of by most writers: His work endures long after his own death. As Vonnegut famously wrote, so it goes.
For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.