Writer: Robert B. Weide
Directors: Robert B. Weide and Don Argott
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is an unashamed paean to the American author best known for Slaughterhouse-Five. Reading this iconic novel as a teenager clearly changed the life of writer and director Robert B. Weide. He is thrilled, when as an aspiring film-maker, he persuades Vonnegut to be interviewed on camera. Indeed he continues to record interviews and feel thrilled throughout decades of their friendship. This two-hour piece of hero-worship is the result.
Weide admits it took years to create, but is unable to explain why. He certainly didn’t lack material, having archived everything from letters, faxes and photos to recordings of Vonnegut’s answering-machine messages. This documentary, therefore, is really as much about Weide as it is about Vonnegut himself. A Boswell figure, Weide is determined to put himself centre stage in Vonnegut’s story. We see him in his late thirties asking Vonnegut’s advice about whether or not to have children (Vonnegut cautions against) and later includes a clip of his own wedding to a Vonnegut-approved bride.
Unlike Boswell, however, Weide appears to have no insight into his life-long need for Vonnegut’s approval, nor, more importantly, any psychological understanding of the complex and reportedly difficult writer. Weide returns again and again to charming sunlit cine footage of the privileged blond Vonnegut youngsters, seeming to suggest that the root of Vonnegut’s humour lay in his happy childhood. Yet he makes little of Vonnegut’s stated response to the collapse of the family business in the Depression and the subsequent loss of the beloved family home, accepting as gospel Vonnegut’s stated response: “I really didn’t give a damn.” Another dark part of Vonnegut’s childhood is largely hidden: his mother’s corrosive bitterness and eventual suicide is only mentioned briefly. Meanwhile Weide dwells sentimentally on the death of Vonnegut’s older sister.
Much is rightly made of Weide’s experiences in World War Two when as a prisoner of war in Dresden he is put in the eponymous slaughter house which ironically saves his life when the fire-bombing begins. He emerges to a destroyed city, but yet again insists “I didn’t feel much of anything,” later describing the episode as “the great adventure of my life.” Weide refuses to explore these clues, preferring to include endless snippets of Vonnegut making off-the-cuff comic pronouncements at student graduations to which he was a frequently invited speaker. He even trails round after his hero at an old high school reunion, insisting hopefully, ‘It was really interesting seeing Kurt with his former classmates.’ But he can glean no more insights from this than he can from being is allowed to stay in Vonnegut’s former Cape Cod home in Cape Cod, other than the experience is “thrilling.”
We are given exhaustive detail about Vonnegut’s marriage to Jane and there are interviews with his two daughters which are genuinely interesting. ‘He’s so full of it!’ remarks one, on being told of his Dresden comment. Vonnegut’s impulsive decision to take in his four nephews after the sudden death of their parents clearly put an enormous strain on everyone and it is here we get a glimmer of the difficult, selfish husband who shuts out family life in order to write, even though for seventeen years he brings in almost no income. We also hear the four now middle-aged nephews sum up their uncle as ‘scary’. ‘Jane was scared of him too,’ one reveals, but yet again this trail is allowed to fizzle out.
Weide clearly feels awkward about the way fame changes Vonnegut, in particular the cliché of his divorce and second marriage and his new liking for hanging out with the famous. Instead he brings the film to rest on his own experience: the last time he saw Vonnegut, he dared to say “I love you, man” and Vonnegut’s predictable reply.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is a thoroughly self-indulgent film which reveals nothing new about Vonnegut as a writer and undermines Weide’s claim that he is a great philosopher. There is talk that academia may now have started to take Vonnegut seriously, but this over-long, dull hagiography is more likely to convince us that his star has faded.
KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME WILL BE RELEASED IN THE UK & IRELAND FROM 22 JULY.