A Filmmaker’s Nearly Forty-Year Quest to Reconcile With His Celebrated Friend and Subject
DIRECTED BY ROBERT B. WEIDE/2021
“Any writer knows that being easy to read is not easy.”
Being a writer who loves himself a good bout of wordsmithing (albeit I’m merely a semi-humble movie critic, not a novelist), that quote, given by another author in appreciation of the subject of Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time,landed a little close to home. All too often have I looked back on a piece I was proud of only to find myself caught up in linguistic knots of my previous self’s making.
Kurt Vonnegut, on the other hand, never seemed to have this problem. The prolific and smartly sardonic author of such seminal novels as The Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions specialized in a certain clipped accessibility, his brilliant wit never suffering for it. His astute delivery and turns of phrase lit up a generation of booksmart youths and frustrated academics. Darkly observational, lightly pessimistic, sometimes self-indulgent (but who cares), Vonnegut’s stuff stuck and then some. But not Vonnegut himself. Per the title- a famous Slaughterhouse Five reference- Kurt Vonnegut has become unstuck in time. But then again, as the director asserts, in this age of nonlinear media and perpetual re-invention, who hasn’t?
Early in the film, another interview subject states that one reads Kurt Vonnegut in order to truly understand the twentieth century in the same way one would read Mark Twain to truly understand the nineteenth century. Which is all the more apt, considering we then spend the rest of the documentary watching Vonnegut slowly physically transform into Twain. Sort of, anyway. We see him appear on The Daily Show with John Stewart at age 83, only one year away from his death by head injury. Vonnegut, his face a textured hanging desert of earned crevasses, appears in a very light (though not quite white) well-worn ensemble, his greying muss of hair a-poof and his mustache particularly bushy. One sharp, quick quip from the author about the futility of life prompts Stewart to sarcastically retort, “Mr. Vonnegut, if I may… it’s sad to see you’ve lost your edge.” A game chuckle from the man whose Breakfast of Champions cartoon drawing of an asshole- a simple asterisk- became part of his signature. (Was Vonnegut acknowledging himself as an asshole, or simply acknowledging that it’s funny to draw them all the time?)
When Curb Your Enthusiasm executive producer Robert B. Weide set out to make the definitive documentary on Kurt Vonnegut, he has no idea what he was getting himself into. Namely, a rich, deeply felt, decades-long friendship with his subject. At the core of the film is the kinship that the two men came to feel for one another. Numerous voice mail recordings of Vonnegut calling up Weide give credence to the filmmaker’s claim that the author remained an active presence in his life even as Unstuck in Time began living up its name as one of those long-term unfinished films. Indeed, this one has been nearly forty years in the making.
Weide approached Vonnegut as a stranger in the early 1980s, having just completed his categorical documentary on the Marx Brothers, The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell. Vonnegut agreed to be the director’s next subject; Weide set out to make what he figured would be a standard-issue personality doc comprised of the usual elements: interviews with friends, family, and scholars, all supplemented with sourced vintage b-roll. Weide tells so much at the beginning, also confessing that he hates documentaries where the filmmaker makes it about themself. Yet here he is, emotionally direct addressing the camera in an attempt to contextualize the lag.
Weide is right; documentaries where the filmmaker inserts themself are indeed inferior. But this is different. It has to be. And while Unstuck in Time does all the things expected of a Vonnegut doc along the way (covering the writer’s family life, his rise to fame, his momentary fall from grace, and his final curtain in 2007) it’s seasoned throughout with Weide’s own remembrances and loose outtake footage of their many premeditated video outings. Tellingly, much much much of it is simply Vonnegut laughing. The man had a great laugh- clearly appreciated by a filmmaker who’s spent his career spotlighting comedians. (Besides the Marx Brothers, Weide has covered W.C. Fields, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, and of course much time with Larry David).
After all these years, Weide’s Vonnegut documentary has come together as not just a tribute, but a reckoning. It is something special. The timing may seem arbitrary, but we come to learn that another close loved one has become ill, a likely prompting for the director to not only “clean house” and stop holding onto the late Kurt Vonnegut, but to confront the overall notion of loss in a past form. Life may’ve been a cruel joke in Vonnegut’s eyes, but the man also seemed to cling to the notion that, if life doesn’t matter, then the only thing that matters is what we do with our lives. (To paraphrase the TV series Angel). Unstuck in Time is a decades-long grappling with all these big ideas while also paying deserved tribute to an American original. The film works for the Vonnegut fan and the Vonnegut novice alike, well-constructed, compelling, funny, and moving. In a nutshell, for all its complexity, this one’s refreshingly easy to read*