Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time
(USA, 127 min.)
Dir. Robert B. Weide and Don Argott
To set out to make a film that encapsulates the life of Kurt Vonnegut is no small task. The prolific American writer’s distinct balance between earnestness and disarming humour feels impossible to replicate, yet it’s the only proper way to honour him. It’s no wonder that the first person who was endowed with the challenge–Robert B. Weide–wrestled with it for 40 years straight.
Naturally, a documentary spanning multiple decades can get a hairy in many ways. Weide inserts himself in the film, addressing the camera from the get-go. He admits he hates when directors needlessly make themselves a part of the story, yet declares it necessary in this case. Audiences will spend the duration of the film weighing whether we needed his presence in the film.
Weide undeniably, and quite luckily, turned from a fan to a friend of Vonnegut’s over the course of filming the latter part of the acclaimed writer’s life. But what is lucky as a friend isn’t always wonderful for a director. The documentary crams together many decades worth of friendship, Vonnegut’s life and that of Weide, which are all messily intertwined and competing for the plotline. It runs the risk of frustrating as many fans as it touches, or more likely, both at the same time.
The unlikely friendship begins with 23-year-old Weide writing to Vonnegut, hoping to profile him in a documentary. While Weide is now known for his work at the helm of Curb Your Enthusiasm, when he wrote to one of the most iconic writers of his time, he had just one TV movie documentary under his belt. After an honest delay, Vonnegut sent a yes.
What follows is a tender doc packed to the brim with much of Vonnegut’s 84 years and four decades of a friendship. At one point we see Weide sort through the piles of tapes Vonnegut sent him of his talks from over the years, and that mountain of recordings alone looks like enough to make a feature film. Naturally, two hours feels too short.
Maybe Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time would have had more room to breathe as a tv series, but one gets the impression that Weide just needed to get it over with already. You can almost hear Vonnegut making a joke about it from beyond the grave. So it goes.
It’s easy to imagine how agonizing it would be to sit with 40 years of footage at your feet summing up a dead friend, and trying to make a film out of it. Weide’s struggles are reminiscent of Vonnegut’s excruciating effort to birth his final novel, Timequake, which the film recalls in detail.
Weide, clearly with the help of co-director Don Argott, manages to hit all the major milestones in Vonnegut’s professional and personal life while making time to squeeze his own in as well. A clip of him winning an Emmy for Curb Your Enthusiasm teeters into self-indulgence.
An extensive treasure trove of Vonnegut family home videos really redeems the film, and there’s value to be found in the letters between Vonnegut and Weide. Ever remaining the fan in awe of his sheer luck, Weide’s intimate correspondences with Vonnegut allow the author’s die-hard devotees to fantasize about being in his shoes. Other fans may (understandably) be annoyed by the parade of friendship souvenirs Weide spends much of the film showing off.
The essence of Vonnegut often evades the film as the essence of Weide and Vonnegut’s relationship is immortalized in it. Thoughtfully curated interview clips and speeches help to piece together an understanding of the man beyond the page, but you might recreate a similar experience on YouTube. The writer’s signature in-text doodles are dwelled on, although they’re easily in every library.
The doc is most useful when it uses Weide’s supreme access to Vonnegut to get material none of us can Google. He paints a beautiful picture of the author as an artist, with insider’s insight into what drove Vonnegut to sketch kooky characters. On the other hand, an unflinching account of how a generation’s favourite thinker dropped his doting wife slash biggest fan as soon as he got famous shows the director wasn’t trying to hide the fault lines in his hero.
While it may not be the definitive Kurt Vonnegut documentary, this sideways view of the iconic writer reveals subterranean parts of him that a head-on documentary could have missed. Maybe what says the most about Vonnegut is how readily he welcomed the person behind the camera into his life, and by extension, the audience itself.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time opened at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Nov. 19.