Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time – Film Review
by Brian Merriman
Produced by Robert B. Weide and Don Argott
Written by Robert B. Weide
Featuring: Kurt Vonnegut jnr, Robert B. Weide, Linda Bates, Jerome Klinkowitz, Sidney Offit
Duration 127 minutes
‘Unstuck In Time’ is a documentary forty years in the making, about the extraordinary life of American author Kurt Vonnegut Jnr. Vonnegut despite struggling to make his mark as a young writer, eventually wrote plays, essays and short fiction. Vonnegut is a complex and interesting character. His later novels became classics of the American counterculture, making him a literary idol, particularly to students in the 1960s and ’70s.
Weide, Emmy award-winning director of the TV hit series ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’, began this homage to his hero as a young man. He admits in the opening sequences that he didn’t want to be in the documentary and thought he shouldn’t be in it – and despite this obvious labour of love, perhaps he was correct?
He considers throughout, the balance between the film and the friendship and vice versa and that remains at the heart of this beautifully shot homage. We see the filming of the film, more than the subject itself. There is an attic full of film, video and DVD with chronological material about the life of Vonnegut. Yet, the film seems to use surprisingly little of the available resource. The main footage comes from a talk given in a Unitarian Church which becomes the often referred to source in the main footage.
Vonnegut was a late bloomer as a writer. He had a fascinating youth that journeyed him from privilege through the Great Depression, through loss, familial distance, marriage and determination to write. He insisted whatever observational material he wrote had to be funny. He has a unique questioning style of observing the fundamental principles of human existence. It is not difficult to understand his appeal to a young generation born in the time of Vietnam and the political alternative encompassed in the conduct of the Nixon years.
His survival and experience of World War II and his witnessing of the bombing of Dresden are powerful. This fuelled his first huge novel success ‘Slaughterhouse Five’. He was a contradiction in terms in relation to his family life. He had heroic instincts in relation to his role as Uncle and father. Equally, his marital history does not cover him in glory. This chain-smoking author wrote and lived a life of self. The relationship with Weide and his wife is sincere and expressive, something not always equalled in how he related to his own children.
There is time in the documentary to explore his thoughts and writing with a greater depth, but when this time is shared with Weide’s own interesting story, it falls somewhat short in what could be reasonably expected, from a 40 year ‘fly on the wall’, first-hand observance, of a rather unique intellect and a determined self-operator. Vonnegut enjoyed the fame he earned. He was as entertaining as he was innovative and insightful.
This is a very friendly film and Weide communicates clearly his love and admiration for the subject. There is the feeling that the final cut leaves unresolved the best balance between ‘friendship and film’. Weide’s sense of loss with Vonnegut’s passing aged 84 and his strong sense of honour to fulfil the promise to complete the work, are equally present on the screen.
This strong personal tug on the filmmaker mixes with the personal challenges he faces in his own life. We don’t know what void Vonnegut fills in Weide’s own back story, but it is a void, and it is filled. Weide’s recording of Vonnegut’s voice messages, the keeping of all video and written messages Vonnegut sent to him, and Vonnegut’s artwork by Weide made the completion essential. Still, it is at a level that appears to crossover from ‘filmmaker to friend’. The selection of the recording of the decades of friendship, in place of the richness of the insights of the archival footage available, may have drawn some focus from the intriguing life and legacy of the central character. ‘And so it goes’.