Unstuck in Time: devoted Vonnegut documentary

Best known for directing numerous episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and the 2011 PBS special Woody Allen: A Documentary, Robert B. Weide has created an intimate if overly reverential portrait of his friend, the seminal writer Kurt Vonnegut.

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time (2021)

Of all the enduring aphorisms coined by Kurt Vonnegut, the most versatile may be Slaughterhouse-Five’s refrain of “so it goes”, which, depending on how the reader looks at it, is either an expression of fatalistic compromise with the world and its trials or a wry statement of defiance, using the language of consensus and capitulation against itself. It’s one thing for a writer’s work to contain multitudes, but at his best, Vonnegut set booby traps on a sentence-by-sentence basis; you don’t plunge into his novels so much as have the rug pulled out from under you. 

In 1969, The New York Times called Slaughterhouse-Five “indescribable”. The adjective fits, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Robert B. Weide’s recent profile documentary, subtitled Unstuck in Time—a reference to Slaughterhouse’s temporally waylaid protagonist Billy Pilgrim, who goes from the Battle of the Bulge to a PTSD ward to an alien zoo en route to death by assassination—represents the latest and most elaborate attempt to deconstruct the style and sensibility of an author whose shadow falls over multiple generations of postmodern literature.

In public life, Vonnegut was a uniquely accessible monolith, holding court on panels and in interviews with grudging enthusiasm. Early in the film, Weide recalls sending the author a fan letter in the early 1980s, when the director was barely out of university. He was startled when Vonnegut casually suggested a telephone confab: a conversation that the film depicts as the primal scene of a beautiful friendship.

The question of how rigorous or objective a documentary derived from a fan letter can really be hangs over Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, as does Weide’s track record as a chronicler and confidant of, and collaborator with, iconoclasts. In addition to working regularly with Larry David as a director on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Weide is one of Woody Allen’s staunchest and highest-profile public defenders, having directed 2011’s Woody Allen: A Documentary. The common thematic denominator between Weide’s choice of subjects—which also include the Marx brothers—is the inseparability of the art from the artist, and in juxtaposing Vonnegut with his famous protagonist Billy Pilgrim, whose experiences as a PoW during the firebombing of Dresden closely mirror those of his creator, he suggests not only that the writer’s subversive absurdity came from a deeply personal place, but that the literary catharsis experienced by his largely collegiate, anti-establishment readership was, on some level, an act of communion between reader and author.

In this emotionally and sociologically loaded context of an apprentice encountering and then holding his own with his teacher—or, to use one of the many words employed over the years to describe Vonnegut, guru—Unstuck in Time has a certain tonal and structural coherence, though maybe not enough to offset the faux-self-deprecating (and really just self-flattering) intrusions of its author at regular and increasingly enervating intervals. The footage, which mixes archival material with interviews and interludes recorded specifically by Weide and his crew, shows Vonnegut as being more than capable of accounting for his art and its implications in his own words, which doesn’t stop the filmmaker from editorializing, or inviting a bunch of talking heads to cover all the necessary talking points.

These sequences are fine for what they are, but they also indicate that for all his worshipful rhetoric about Vonnegut’s congenital allergy to convention, Weide isn’t interested in stretching or breaking formal boundaries. Instead, he substitutes density for depth. The film is at once sprawling and crammed, covering a vast swath of historical, biographical, and cultural terrain without necessarily penetrating it all that deeply. It’s clear that Vonnegut, who died in 2007, liked and even respected Weide, and it’s charming to watch the performative reticence of their early shooting sessions evolve into something like genuine familiarity. In fact, nearly everything we see and hear Vonnegut do and say is charming, partly because the man’s capacity for self-presentation was so sophisticated—his pithy, idiomatic declarations; his rumpled, common-sense pessimism; his empathy for unformed, adolescent indignation—and partly because Weide refuses to press him on anything that doesn’t fit his (or Vonnegut’s) narrative. Without ever losing sight of the formative combat traumas underlying his fiction—or the tragedies that led to Vonnegut adopting and parenting his nephews along with his own children—the film eventually starts to feel like a series of victory laps around its hero’s legend. Unstuck in Time’s mix of respect and deference is, despite Weide’s protestations to the contrary, entirely expected. So it goes.

► Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is in UK cinemas now.