23 September 2023

An insight into an American iconoclast 40 years in the making

Director Robert B. Weide with Kurt Vonnegut. Picture: IFC Films

Tim Kroenert 

28 June 2022

Kurt Vonnegut had a special relationship with time. The late American author was often maligned between the high-water marks of his success. As time passed, it was frequently young people discovering his prophetic, iconoclastic fiction that kept his writings relevant.  

This would not surprise him. He knew on a cosmic scale that human beings are close together in time. Pressed by younger generations for answers to the world’s plight, Vonnegut would quip, “Don’t ask me, I just got here myself”. 

The title of documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time calls back to Vonnegut’s most enduring novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Its hero Billy Pilgrim was literally unstuck in time, experiencing the events of his life out of order. This conceit works as an allegory for the persistence of memory, and causal connections across time of past, present and future.  

Director Robert Weide discovers the experience of being unstuck in time also applies to the process of filmmaking. His documentary has been 40 years in the making. Weide is as old today as Vonnegut was when they began. 

Back then, Weide was one of those young people whose minds had been captured by the incisive wit of Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions. The two men became close friends as Weide filmed and interviewed Vonnegut and members of his family over years.  

For Weide, the Vonnegut film was a magnum opus he never knew how to finish. His own appearances are drawn from four separate interviews recorded over the course of a decade. Film allows those disparate “Weides” to be condensed into a single two-hour span. 

The film permits such philosophical digressions. But it is the friendship between filmmaker and subject, and the insights Weide provides into Vonnegut the man, that are its heart. For example, it concludes with a supercut of Vonnegut wheezing his utterly charming laugh.  

Vonnegut’s adult daughters are among the interviewees, and provide fascinating insights into his flawed but profound presence in their family. We see how the author appeared to those closest to him. It’s not always an appealing sight. 

Vonnegut died 14 years before the film was finished. But part of the point of the film and of Vonnegut’s writing is that death is just a moment, and the sum of a human life cannot be conceived by presenting such moments in a straight line. 

Certainly, that is true of Vonnegut, who is described here as the 20th century’s Mark Twain. People will be reading his books –  and perhaps watching this film – in 200 years. He will be as present to those readers as he is today to us, who by then will also be dead. So it goes on. 

Screening at Nova. 

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