From Robert E. Weide, comes Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, the remarkable documentary made over four decades, shining a light on the wonderful, troubled mind of one of the 20th century’s greatest storytellers.
If Kurt Vonnegut made documentaries, they would perhaps go a little something like this. The story of Unstuck in Time, much in the same way as Vonnegut’s most famous protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, jumps around, successfully chronicling the various chapters of the late writer’s life, as well as the forty years over which the documentary was created.
It is a journey that any fan of Vonnegut’s writing will enjoy. That’s who Unstuck in Time is made for, and ultimately who Unstuck in Time is made by. Its creator, Robert E. Weide, became obsessed with Vonnegut’s work while he was still at high school and, at the age of 23, approached the legendary author about the possibility of making a film about him.
That was four decades ago. In that time, Weide became an acclaimed filmmaker in his own right – creating the wildly successful Curb Your Enthusiasm with Larry David – Vonnegut grew old, his children grew up, he wrote his final novel, and ultimately he passed away in 2007 at the age of 84. Most important to this story, however, was that Weide and Vonnegut became incredibly close friends.
The story behind the making of Unstuck in Time features as prominently as the story of Vonnegut himself.
Vonnegut effectively chose Weide as his archivist, while Weide saw the Vonnegut film as something of his own magnum opus. There seems nothing remotely exploitative on either side, but equally, the closer they became as friends, the further they strayed from making a documentary.
For years, tapes and notes and faxes from Vonnegut regularly arrived on Weide’s doorstep. Often, too, Weide would accompany Vonnegut on trips and tours, capturing endless footage, unsure quite what to do with it or how it would one day piece together. Both seemed confident that the nebulous future date would come and a documentary would arrive, but I doubt either conceived it would be 2022.
The result of all this toil and heart is ambitious and imperfect; endearing, thoughtful and unique. Vonnegut’s humour and wisdom shine through. Weide deserves praise for creating something as moving as Unstuck in Time, while still highlighting the flaws of a friend he clearly cared for deeply. He succeeded in making a movie fit to honour the great man, which, it becomes increasingly evident, was his ultimate goal.
For though Unstuck in Time takes its name from Billy Pilgrim’s time travelling predicament in Vonnegut’s seminal work, Slaughterhouse Five, it also draws inspiration from Vonnegut’s final work, Timequake. That novel details how difficult it is to tell a story, knowing it’ll be your last. While Weide will embark on other projects – and likely be best remembered for creating Curb Your Enthusiasm – it seems unlikely he ever makes anything as protracted, personal or challenging as Unstuck in Time.
And yet, as honest as Weide is about how difficult he found it, and as self-deprecating as he is about how heavily he features, just how involved he is serves as a hindrance, as well as a help. At times, his presence does feel overblown, and the arrival of his wife, in particular, seems to come out of nowhere. Theirs is a moving story, integral to the making of the documentary, but not to Vonnegut’s life.
Then there’s some of the animations. I enjoyed the heavy incorporation of Vonnegut’s own drawings. Like his prose, they are intensely personal and illuminate both his characters and his thoughts, but the animated cartoons seemed at odds with the rest of the film.
Nonetheless, these are small issues – perhaps even necessary idiosyncrasies in making this wonderful, elaborate documentary.
One of the many lines which stood out, and which I have thought about often over the last few weeks, came not from Vonnegut or Weide, but from another interviewee, whose name I swiftly forgot. Concerning the early criticism of Vonnegut’s writing, he said,“Just because it’s profound to fifteen year olds, doesn’t mean it’s not profound.” He’s right. In fact, that Vonnegut could write something profound for teenagers and adults alike is a testament to his work.
Unstuck in Time is much the same. If you want to really critically pull it apart, perhaps you could. Rather, it seems better to simply enjoy a heartfelt eulogy from one friend to another, the latter of whom sadly – as is the way with eulogies – will never get to hear it. So it goes.