Kurt Vonnegut was an author best known for his books Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions. His writing was surreal, funny, and borderline science fiction. The themes were usually based around some character watching the world fall apart all around them but trying to make the best of it. His books were easy to read and, to paraphrase somebody in the documentary, “He made literature fun.”
Unstuck in Time started as a documentary by Robert B. Weide (best known for directing a bunch of Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes) back in the early eighties. He was producing documentaries for PBS and with Vonnegut’s consent started interviewing Kurt and other members of the Vonnegut family. The documentary kept getting footage throughout the years including trips to Vonnegut’s childhood home, various speaking engagements, and even his forty-fifth high school reunion. As the footage accumulated, the doc kept getting placed further past the back burner and eventually behind the stove.
So, this documentary is forty years in the making. We see the transition from this stoic World War II vet struggling to be a writer, to the goofy, mustached man he became in the ’70s, and eventually, the eighty-year-old man pissed off that he’s still alive and even more pissed off at the Bush administration. The film goes into depth about the trial and error of his writing. One of his early goals was to sell enough stories to magazines so he could quit his terrible job at General Electric. There’s a good chunk of coverage on the process of him writing Slaughterhouse Five. He re-wrote it from scratch many times and had many variations, including one where Vonnegut randomly prank calls the main character.
The interviews with Vonnegut’s family are heavy. Vonnegut went back and forth with being a good to an extremely bad father. Early on, he took in his deceased sister’s four kids. And years later after fame hit him, he abandoned his whole family for a New York lifestyle.
You know how there are documentaries where the filmmakers put themselves in the narrative and it sort of becomes about them? I think this works for this movie. Weide goes from super-fan to super-friend over the years. Weide became Vonnegut’s unofficial personal archivist. His attic was full of transcripts, VHS tapes of speaking engagements Kurt mailed to him, and every letter and voicemail ever sent. He struggled with finally putting all the footage together. So you see Bob Weide’s face a lot but you aren’t annoyed with it. You may be annoyed with the various scenes of Weide editing the movie on a desktop computer. And except for the extremely corny final scene, he comes off as genuine.
Would I recommend this documentary to someone who has never heard of Kurt Vonnegut? Totally. All the archive footage is impressively shot. I loved all the early eighties interviews of Vonnegut on an Amtrak train. It’s funny and Vonnegut is so quick-witted in whatever setting he’s in. There are little chunks of Vonnegut wisdom throughout the film. My favorite is “We were just put on this earth to fart around.”
I encourage anybody young and unfamiliar with his work to check out this documentary and spread the love. Judging by the audience at the screening I attended, a good chunk of his current fan base isn’t going to be around much longer. –Rick V. (vonnegutmovie.com)