Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

Well…I had been planning my big Kurt Vonnegut post for NEXT November 11 (2022), when it will be the centenary of the author’s birth, but that aspiration has been altered by the upcoming November 19 release of the documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time by Robert B. Weide and Don Argott.

I’m sure I’m not unique in valuing Vonnegut as one of my favorite authors of my teenage years and young adulthood. In fact, I was introduced to his books not by teachers, but by fellow high school kids. His novels were like rock albums in that way. As I wrote here, in my post on the film version of Slapstick, I read all of Vonnegut’s published works up ’til that time (1983) while still in high school, including all his novels, short story collections, non-fiction, plays and teleplays. They were all easily accessible in paperback form, even oddities like the script to the 1972 TV movie Between Time and Timbuktu starring Bob and Ray. As an adult I read some, though not all, of his ensuing works. The lack of completion had less to do with a change in enthusiasm, or a difficulty in keeping up (he wrote at a famously slow pace), than that I have never been the kind of person who splurges on new books hot off the presses (I take them out of the library, get review copies, or purchase them second hand). But I am one of the many whose worldview was shaped by Vonnegut’s at an impressionable age. His darkly satirical, pessimistic voice primed me for exposure to the Absurdist playwrights. I deeply loved the playfulness of his imagination and his science fiction premises. He seemed to draw the same kind of fun in naming characters as Dickens did. The journalistic clarity of his language (in emulation of writers like Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce) was a quality I was less inclined to mirror in my own writing, though I could respect and certainly enjoy it. Above all, his digs at the establishment, war, the military, materialism, religion, and so forth made him very attractive to young people in my time. I’d be curious to know the degree to which it’s the case any longer.

Film-maker Robert B. Weide is just a little bit older than me, and of course he would make this movie. He is both a chronicler of great comic minds and one of contemporary comedy’s foremost practioners. It turns out I know most of his work without knowing that I knew it. His documentaries have included The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell (1982), W.C. Fields: Straight Up (1986), Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition (1989), Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth (1998), and Woody Allen: A Documentary (2011). Like me, he has been a guest on the Marx Brothers Council Podcast. His production company is called Whyaduck Productions! But he has also been one of the key players on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, directing the 1999 pilot and 30 subsequent episodes, and co-producing 50 of them. He won Emmys for the Bruce and Fields docs, and for directing Curb. He also wrote the 1996 screen adaptation of Vonnegut’s novel Mother Night, directed by Keith David (who had appeared with Vonnegut in the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield movie Back to School). Work on the Vonnegut documentary had actually begun in the early 1980s. It has taken nearly 40 years to finish. Vonnegut himself, who participated fully in the film, as did many of his friends and family, passed away in 2007.

Our 112 posts on the Marx Brothers, 104 posts on W.C Fields, 3 posts on Woody Allen including Wiede’s doc) and posts on Larry David, Lenny Bruce, and Mort Sahl, are all reasonable indicators that I’d be primed to love the new documentary, and I do. Wiede worked on the film so long that he and Vonnegut actually became close friends, and as a consequence, for once, one doesn’t mind the authorial intrusion, for he really is Vonnegut’s Boswell here. He knew him. He was part of his life for over 20 years. And one of the pleasures and benefits of the film is that you see Vonnegut through Wiede’s eyes — in large part as a comedian. Now, anyone who loves Vonnegut does so partially because he is so funny. But still, ya know: death. The many of us of who knew the author exclusively through his words might be forgiven for picturing a guy who was constantly depressed, a drag to be around. I’d also seen him only in still photos (aside from that cameo in Back to School) and the main takeaway is always those huge soulful eyes, the Einsteinian rats nest of hair and fuzzy intellectual moustache. I’ve always pictured him drunk and stinking of his omnipresent Pall Malls, ruminating on the evil of man and the end of existence. In another life, if he had not been trained and encouraged in practical science, I see him fitting in at one of those ancient German Universities mastering philology and metaphysics at a desk next to Heidegger or something. BUT…in Weide’s interpretation at least, Vonnegut seems like a hoot, always laughing (usually at his own wicked wit), with one of those raspy, wheezy smoker’s laughs, making the resemblance to his hero Mark Twain even more pronounced. You get to hear him intone some of his famous lines to audiences from speakers’ podiums, and see him enjoy the mirth he provokes. Hadn’t you always assumed that Vonnegut would, like his mother, die by suicide? I had. This movie depicts a man who had a lot to live for and enjoyed being alive. (See poster above) His most suicidal act was those Pall Malls, and even those didn’t kill him (much as he assumed they would).

And that voice! My God, what a great midwestern American voice. I mean, in this case, not the authorial one, but the one that comes out of his face. This by itself is one of my favorite aspects of the movie. Vonnegut would have been so great on radio (dare I say, a veritable Howard Campbell?). The man was American to the soles of his feet — anyone who’d call him un-American because of his views would have to be blind, dumb as a post, or a liar. He wasn’t a man who hated his country; he was a man who disapproved of the foolish callousness of institutions. The Vonneguts were one of the first families of Indianapolis. His architect father and grandfather were leading hands in building that city; his great-grandfather was one of its leading businessmen beginning in the 1850s. Vonnegut loved his hometown (a good deal of the film is spent there) and he plainly had a strong awareness of himself in the tradition of Hoosier humorists like George Ade, James Whitcomb Riley, and Robert John Wildhack. You could make a case that Vonnegut is what you get when you mash that together with science fiction. Nuclear fusion style, in his case it created an explosion, unleashing energy far greater than that which produced it. Vonnegut, by the way, studied biochemistry at Cornell, mechanical engineering at Carnegie, and anthropology at the University of Chicago. One of his first writing jobs was as a p.r. man at General Electric, obtained with the help of his brother Bernard, a famous atmospheric scientist. This, and most of his main autobiographical details we know from reading his books, but it’s always been hard to get a handle on, given that the context (in the novels, anway) is fiction. The film grounds it in reality for us.

We are so far away from the 20th century now, we are able to see more clearly a fact which was no doubt obvious to Vonnegut himself: he was PART OF the society he satirized. A product of affluence, a World War Two veteran, an apologist for science in the post-war era, (a flack for G.E. for God’s sake!), he even ran a car dealership for a while to make ends meet. He was a family man. He obsessed about money. He was not, for example, some Bohemian beatnik living in a cold water squat. But he also saw things that are hidden from most Americans. He had witnessed war atrocities (both German and American). He had witnessed the destruction of one of Europe’s great cities and had personally buried (like, with a shovel) uncountable corpses of dead civilians. He knew that somewhere underneath the cheery theatre of America’s consumer paradise was a subterranean death chamber, and he thought it was something we ought to be talking about. His masterpiece Slaughterhouse Five (1969) spoke to the Vietnam generation. He was very disheartened to see it all happening all over again in Iraq. What he would make of the post-2016 era, I have no idea. It may just have been enough to break him.

Anyway, there are volumes more to say about Vonnegut himself. Maybe I’ll add some more at the centennial next year. Meantime, I heartily recommend Weide’s film. It’s available on demand and in select theatres.

For my friend Ayun Halliday’s great review, go here.

My mother-in-law’s first edition copy of “Slaughterhouse Five” alongside my autographed copy of “Fates Worse Than Death”