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As befits a documentary about an unconventional thinker, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time takes an unconventional approach. It serves the expected functions of a typical artist documentary, combining interviews with the subject, interviews with experts, and archival documents and footage into a solid summary of his life, his work and his legacy. But threaded through the narrative is one about the making of the documentary itself — an impish approach that, though it doesn’t always pay off, feels like a creative swing in the spirit of Vonnegut himself.
The story of the film begins in 1982, when filmmaker Robert Weide, then 23, writes to his favorite author, then 59, proposing to make a movie about him. (To put the timeline in perspective, Weide points out he’s now about the age Vonnegut was when the project began.) Or maybe it begins a few years earlier, when Weide was assigned to read Breakfast of Champions in high school, and grew so enamored of it that his teacher invited him to teach a course about Vonnegut to his classmates while he was still a student. True to its title, Unstuck in Time takes a Tralfamadorian perspective to the timeline: A clip of Vonnegut looking at a World War II plaque in his old high school might segue to biographers discussing his time as a prisoner of war in Dresden, which might lead to talk of coping mechanisms, which might turn into a cue to show off his artwork.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time
Release date: Friday, Nov. 19
Directors: Robert B. Weide, Don Argott
Screenwriter: Robert B. Weide
In any case, Vonnegut agrees to the request and begins corresponding with Weide and sitting for interviews. Their collaboration continues for years, and then decades. All the while they grow closer, their filmmaker-subject relationship morphing into a true friendship. They spend time together, meet each other’s families, confide in each other about their relationships, swap gifts and advice. By the time of Vonnegut’s death, in 2007, they’d been working on the documentary for more than three decades. It’d be another decade still before Weide, with help from director Don Argott, finally completed the picture. In the meantime, Weide goes through several major life events which take up more of the film’s run time than seems strictly necessary, their inclusion here perhaps intended as explanations for why it took him so long to finish. (Among other things, he was busy making Curb Your Enthusiasm.)
Unstuck in Time doesn’t bother feigning objectivity. Weide’s giddiness at getting to hang out with one of his heroes is palpable: “If someone had told the high school me that someday I’d spend several nights in the room where Kurt Vonnegut wrote all those books, I think my head would have exploded,” he gushes about the early days of the endeavor. It’s also what makes the film a for-fans-only affair. While approachable even to casual readers, thanks to patient explanations by scholars and biographers who’ve made Vonnegut their life’s work, the film isn’t really geared toward converting skeptics, revealing new information or even telling a really great yarn. It’s an opportunity to bask in Vonnegut’s wit and intelligence — to admire the crackerjack delivery of his jokes, savor the offbeat perfection of his prose, drink in the playfulness of his smile.
At times, this borders on hagiography. For the first half of the 126-minute film, barely a critical word is heard from any of the interview subjects, who include peers, scholars, loved ones and, of course, Weide himself. But the film does make room eventually for more complicated reflections on Vonnegut from his children and nephews, who recall him as a moody and inattentive father figure who ditched his “drab” Cape Cod life — including his steadfastly supportive first wife, Jane — for the excitement of the New York celebrity set after 1969’s Slaughterhouse-Five made him a star. And there’s no glossing over the dark, even despairing sense of humor that makes his work so unforgettable. “You should see when he laughs at the most inappropriate times, but it seems right, somehow,” says daughter Nanny. “Definitely his way of sublimating.”
Unstuck in Time is most effective at drawing out its subject’s humanity when it lets his contradictions bubble to the surface. In one clip, Vonnegut says it “doesn’t make [him] sad at all” to reflect on his childhood because those were happy times; in another, he says it makes him “terribly sad” to look at old photos of his family. During a 1988 interview, Vonnegut rejects the idea that Dresden was a pivotal time in his life, and suggests the neighborhood dogs he knew growing up had a greater impact on him. Meanwhile, other interview subjects, harrowing footage and the mere fact that his wartime experience is so central to Slaughterhouse-Five all strongly indicate otherwise. As his daughter Edie puts it: “He’s full of it.”
In those moments, something more complex shows through the cracks of what otherwise feels, for better or for worse, like one man’s loving tribute to a late hero and friend. (Even its structure is apparently borrowed from Vonnegut’s Timequake, which becomes a story about the author’s struggle to write the story.) Unstuck in Time‘s respect for its subject can keep that same subject at a bit of a remove — you might wonder if Vonnegut and Weide’s relationship was really all warm fuzzies, or if it’s just presented that way because Weide wants to protect what they had together. But it does, in the end, feel like a true act of friendship. If that isn’t nice, what is?
Distributor: IFC Films
Production company: Whyaduck Productions, 9.14 Pictures
Directors: Robert B. Weide, Don Argott
Screenwriter-producer: Robert B. Weide
Editors: William Neal, Bo Price, Demian Fenton
Co-executive producers: Hugh Thompson, Nicolas Sampson, Kathryn F. Thorne, Omri Lavie
Music: Alex Mansour, Paul Cantelon
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