Writer-director Robert B. Weide, best known for his contributions to Curb Your Enthusiasm, worked on a Kurt Vonnegut documentary—with full cooperation from his subject—from the 1980s up to the author’s death.
As of 2007—when the man who had become Weide’s good friend succumbed to a head injury after falling down the stairs at his New York City home—the film had not been completed. Finally, 14 years after the esteemed author of Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle left the planet, the film is now complete.
Something compelled Weide (with the help of co-director Don Argott) to finally dive back in, finish his work and get the film out. Similar to how Vonnegut struggled to complete his seminal Slaughterhouse-Five, Weide struggled to find the binding agent that would hold his documentary together.
Turns out that binding agent was himself.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is very much about two people, the subject and the filmmaker, and their touching bond that formed over the years. This is a movie that makes you feel good, not just because it’s a good movie (and it is), but because of the documented friendship that the men had with one another, and how they enriched one another’s lives. It is truly moving.
The film starts with Weide sitting down for his fifth interview for the film. He laments the notion of injecting himself into his movie—even though his insertion proves to be a blessing, providing the kind of warmth that one may not expect in a Vonnegut biography.
Vonnegut’s participation is extensive, and his interviews early in the film veer away from true emotion, as Vonnegut uses dark humor as a shield for the pain he’s endured in life. This is a man who was with the military, in a bunker under the city, as Dresden was firebombed to oblivion (a key element of Slaughterhouse-Five). His recounting of that experience is shockingly devoid of the reaction one would expect (tears, disgust, etc.). In fact, he laughs a lot when he talks about death.
As Vonnegut grows closer to Weide, and grows older, the humor never goes away—but a surprising sensitivity begins to emerge. Weide covers Vonnegut, warts and all, and the author certainly had his stumbles on his way to fame. But the true depth and brilliance of the man overshines the low points.
Late in the film, Vonnegut delivers a speech that implores those listening to include many people in their lives, even the imbeciles. There’s a little bit of sadness to it, because Vonnegut didn’t leave the planet with a large swath of people close to him, according to this film. But there is the sweetness in knowing Vonnegut did achieve an important bond or two during his time on the Earth—including the bond with Weide.
The film works on an educational level as well, excellently covering the release of his major works in chronological order and providing sufficient stories and background for the different stages of his life that produced those books. Interviews with his sons and daughters are wonderfully candid, as they have no problem talking about how the guy could be a bummer at times, but they always remained in awe of him.
So … why did it take so long for the film to be completed? Weide provides a few excuses, including his sudden involvement with Curb moving to the forefront of his professional life. While the film doesn’t necessarily say so, perhaps it’s also because Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time represents a goodbye to his friend—and goodbyes are painful. Sometimes it’s easier to delay that true goodbye.
Hopefully this film will find an audience not just with Vonnegut fans, but with the uninitiated. I read a few of his works many years ago, and this movie has me wanting to explore more of his novels—and learn more about the man behind those novels. That’s the mark of a good documentary.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time opens Friday, Nov. 19, at theaters to be announced.