In 1982, aspiring filmmaker Robert B Weide wrote to Kurt Vonnegut to ask if he could make a film him. The world-famous satirical novelist behind ‘Breakfast of Champions’ and ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, two books that changed the landscape of American literature, agreed – much to the filmmaker’s astonishment. Over the next quarter of a century, as he became a well-known documentary filmmaker and Emmy-winning director on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Weide kept filming, becoming not only Vonnegut’s video biographer and unofficial archivist, but also his close friend. ‘I used to worry that the friendship would get in the way of the film,’ he notes, ‘but later on I began to fear that the film would get in the way of the friendship.’
Now, after 40 years – 15 after Vonnegut’s death, aged 84 – Weide (who scripted a film adaptation of ‘Mother Night’ starring Nick Nolte) has finally finished that film.
Aptly subtitled Unstuck in Time, after the fate of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’s hapless protagonist Billy Pilgrim (for whom ‘So it goes’ is a fatalist mantra), it’s as different to the film he set out to make as it’s possible to imagine. Rather than a straightforward biographical documentary – though there’s a good hour of that here, featuring some restored home movies from Vonnegut’s childhood, clips from talk shows and interviews with his children – Weide’s film interweaves the more conventional material with his own struggle to shape and finish the film, reluctantly bringing elements of his own life into the raw materials in a way that feels authentic and organic rather than indulgent. ‘When you take almost forty years to make a film,’ he explains on camera, ‘you owe some explanation’.
Seeing the finished film, it’s nearly impossible to imagine it being made any other way, its provenance and structure being so – there’s no other word for it – Vonnegut-esque. Vonnegut wrote and rewrote ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ multiple times over the years before finally completing it; he had an autobiographical doppelganger (Kilgore Trout) who pops up in multiple works, arguably an avatar for Vonnegut’s psyche at the time; in ‘Breakfast of Champions’, Vonnegut himself turns up to reveal to Trout that he’s a made-up character.
He didn’t live to see it, but Vonnegut would have been proud of this film
Weide’s cut-up, non-sequential chronicling of Vonnegut’s life covers everything from his survival of the carpet bombing of Dresden in 1945 (‘We all came out and the city was gone’), his mother’s suicide later in the same year and the death of his beloved sister and her husband within two days of each other in 1948, through to his pre-fame science-fiction stories, the fame that followed ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, and how his celebrity affected his family.
Selected readings from novels and short stories are imaginatively visualised, and the final sequences are profoundly moving. Vonnegut would have been proud of the finished film, although he did not live to see it. So it goes.
In UK cinemas now.