Robert B. Weide’s documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is about the man in the title, but it’s also about an enduring friendship, and it’s about the long game of filmmaking. Long as in 40 years: Weide, then a little-known documentarian, first proposed the idea of a documentary about the influential novelist in 1982, when he was 23 and Vonnegut was 60. Vonnegut died in 2007. Weide, at 62, is now older than Vonnegut was at this project’s inception. What took so long?
As Weide himself candidly explains in the film, other, more lucrative offers got in the way, not the least of which was the 1999 pilot for Curb Your Enthusiasm; Weide would go on to direct 28 more episodes of the HBO comedy, winning Emmys for some of them.
But there are more poignant reasons for the project’s extended delay. To complete the film would be to fully acknowledge Vonnegut’s death — to come to terms with the mortality of someone who had become more than just a subject. One could look at Unstuck in Time as Weide’s albatross, always present through other projects both menial and important, the archival material from Vonnegut’s life piling up in his mailbox and studio like Tetris blocks, voluminous and demanding and unnavigable.
Or you could see it, as I do, as Weide’s magnum opus, a work that simply demanded four decades of assembly and reflection. The result is a portrait of platonic male love that transcends art. Particularly given Vonnegut’s darkly satirical writing and curmudgeonly reputation, it manages to pulls at the heartstrings with an unexpected sincerity.
As Weide reveals, his intentions for the Vonnegut doc were initially standard-operating-procedure for the biography genre: Interviews with the author himself, his friends and family and scholars of his work interspersed with excerpts from his novels and archival footage of his appearances. That original linear, straightforward, Ken Burns-perfected form of storytelling does exist within the broader tapestry of Unstuck in Time, functioning a first-rate primer on the writer’s richly cinematic life.
We hear about Vonnegut’s transformative stint as a POW in World War II and how it inspired Slaughter-house Five; about the death of his beloved sister Allie, at 41, from cancer; about his grueling day job at General Electric while trying, and initially failing, to sell science-fiction short stories to literary magazines; about his mercurial temper and dogged work ethic, and his approach to his novels, which he called “mosaics of jokes about serious matters.”
All of this material, delivered with stately authority, lives in a more structurally adventurous cocoon punctuated by meta disruptions. The documentary ethos of objective detachment is broken straightaway. Weide tells us he’s not the sort of documentarian who enjoys being in his own movies, but as he shows us, he sat down in front of his own camera five times over the years to explore a picture that had become bigger than himself, bigger perhaps than Vonnegut.
He reveals how the sausage of filmmaking is made, “rewinding” his own footage when necessary. Sam Waterston recorded voice-overs of Vonnegut from his books and letters, so Weide shows us Waterston in front of a microphone during one of the tapings. Vonnegut would have loved these Brechtian flourishes, because he practiced them himself in his writing. Perhaps Weide realized that to do justice to the great man would require a more radical approach to narrative.
The movie’s title cuts to the heart of this heterodox sensibility. Vonnegut’s life was not a linear one. We are told that, long before the bombing of Dresden, Vonnegut put his head against a tree and saw the events unfold in his mind, with the clarity of a prophet. In a commencement speech to graduating collegians, he speaks of generations colliding into each other, of time collapsing — of the notion of time as something illusory, something irrelevant.
Vonnegut’s books, as his champions would agree, are timeless. So too, Weide implies, is the man who wrote them.
KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME. Director: Robert B. Weide; Distributor: IFC Films; Not Rated; Now playing at Living Room Theaters at FAU