Robert Weide was still in high school in California when he volunteered to teach Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. “There were maybe a dozen people in the class. We had rehearsals, and people made papers, and I gave grades and all that, so it was like a really cool Vonnegut book club, ”he recalls. Never mind that Breakfast of Champions, the illustrated novel that had introduced him to his hero a few years earlier, was not exactly a conventional high school award. “To give an idea of the maturity of my illustrations for this book,” it typically sounds, “here is my picture of an asshole.”
Weide still has the paperback he read back then. He flips lovingly through the yellowed pages of a film that has taken him 40 years to make. Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is not exactly a conventional documentary. It’s both a portrait of a writer through a lifetime and the story of a friendship that grew out of fandom through decades of letters, recorded speeches and snatched interviews.
Its unusually long pregnancy means it has also accumulated a sub-theme as a chronicle of changing technologies, ranging from the home films of the 1920s and 30s that Vonnegut’s parents made of their three blonde children frolicking on the lawn of their affluent home in Indiana. fuzzy VHS recordings, faxed pictures and scratchy phone messages. All are carefully cataloged and preserved in the Los Angeles House, where the director lives with his wife, actress Linda Bates.
Weide grew up in Fullerton, California, the early nerdy son of a Jewish family who was on the hunt for Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton movies at a time when his schoolmates were dreaming of playing in the Super Bowl. “Sport was not my thing,” he says. “The Marx Brothers were a kind of gateway drug and opened the door to the whole comic world at a fairly young age.” He has since made a thesis in documentaries on magnificent comedy, including WC Fields, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. He directed a not-quite-successful adaptation of Toby Young’s Hollywood talk show How to Lose Friends and Influence People, starring Simon Pegg, and was the lead director on the extremely successful TV sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm, starring Larry David as a semi-fictionalized film. version of itself.
Vonnegut was an aging celebrity working on the inspirational speech circuit in the absence of literary inspiration when Weide wrote to him suggesting he would like to make a documentary about him. His business card was a film about the Marx brothers that he had made while still in college. “I waited and waited and got no answer, so I thought, well that was it, and then suddenly there was a letter with the familiar handwriting on it, as you see in Breakfast of Champions,” Weide says. “I was 23 and he was turning 60 and I wanted to refer to him as the old man. Now I’m just turned 63. How fucked is that?”
Until the mid-40s, Vonnegut was an unsung writer of magazine short stories and easy-to-read novels. He had given up a daily job for General Electric to find himself struggling to feed a large family of three of his own children and four of his sisters, whom he and his wife, Jane, adopted after their parents died a few days in a row. . That all changed in 1969 with the release of his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five, the novel he had struggled to write his entire adult life. It repeated his experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden when the German city was bombed in a fire in World War II, which struck a chord with a generation that had recently been traumatized by the war in Vietnam.
Like his main character, Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut survived by drowning in the meat of an old slaughterhouse. “There were sounds like giant footsteps above. It was stickers with high-explosive bombs. The giants went and went.” Like Pilgrim, he and his other PoWs appeared to find themselves tasked with digging thousands of charred corpses from the ruins of the city. The film contains some gloomy archive footage. Still, the interview by Weide during a train ride to a speech engagement, Vonnegut pulls it all off. “I did not feel much of anything,” he insists. “It was a big adventure in my life … The neighborhood dogs when I was growing up had a far greater impact on what I am now than the firebombing of Dresden.”
The camera then flickers to his two daughters, Nanette and Edith. “Did he really say that?” Edith asks in astonishment. Inappropriate laughter was his way of dealing with the horror, Nanette points out.
Weide takes Vonnegut back to visit his old school, where he stares up at the lists of the dead and hisses like a set of happy bellows while remembering the coincidence of some of the deaths. A contemporary college student he screams was so excited to hear about the bombing of Pearl Harbor that he banged his head on the faucet of his bath and died.
The theme of inappropriate laughter echoes throughout the film, from the moment Weide traces the schoolteacher who first introduced him to the Breakfast of Champions. “Looking back now, I’m horrified that I did. It’s a pretty edgy, iconoclastic book,” she says. “No comedy historian could remain immune to this problem,” Weide points out. “Would Lenny Bruce be acceptable in day? I’ve thought a lot about it, and I think all the people who always say ‘Where’s Lenny Bruce now?’ would cancel his ass after about five seconds on stage. “People still honor him as a pioneer, a social satirist who speaks the truth about power and all that, but I do not think he would last 10 minutes these days.”
Vonnegut’s get-out in Slaughterhouse-Five was the slogan “And so it goes”, which ricochets around in the novel 100 times. This also becomes a mantra for Weide’s film as it becomes increasingly darker autobiographical. “I used to worry that the friendship would get in the way of the movie, but later I started to fear that the movie would get in the way of the friendship,” he says. His solution was to insert a co-director, Don Argott, to add another part. “I did not even want to be in the movie,” he insists. “This was supposed to be a conventional writer’s doctor with interviews with Kurt, his family, cinemas and scholars. But when you take almost 40 years to make a film, you owe an explanation.”
The story of Weide’s friendship with Vonnegut is linked to the story of his love affair with Linda, who appeared in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm and now has an aggressive form of dementia. Vonnegut adored Linda. “He would have met her a few years after I did, and he said, ‘You know this is a keeper. When are you going to marry her?’ So I married her in 1998. ” Vonnegut also said he would only visit the couple if Weide directed her in a revival of his 1970 play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June (in the role that Susannah York played on film a year later, opposite Rod Steiger).
Weide duly made it to a Hollywood theater in 2001, though the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center prevented its author from keeping his side of the deal. ‘The film is just a continuation of that thread. He was a big part of the drug in our lives, ”says Weide. Vonnegut died after a fall in 2007 at the age of 84. “And then this happened to Linda, which affected my ability to focus on the film at all,” Weide says. “The thought gnawed at me that I need to reveal this and talk about what we’re going through.” Twelve years after Vonnegut’s death, the couple renewed their vows on film, and in one of the final scenes, they stroll hand in hand along an esplanade. “Linda is far more disabled now,” he says. “She can not walk. She can not talk. She can not feed herself. And so it goes.”
What saves this meta-story from pampering is its echo of Vonnegut’s own self-referential storytelling, not least through the recurring, autobiographical character of Kilgore Trout, the failed author of 117 science fiction novels, a multi-eyed portrait of who hangs on a wall in the Weide home. Vonnegut wrote versions of Trout for novels and short stories over more than five decades.
In his latest novel, Timequake, he set the trout free and named Weide as one of the guests at the clambake thrown to celebrate the occasion. Weide, his friend, archivist and chronicler, now sets Vonnegut free as a 20th-century magus who looked up at the stars and laughed at the fearsome randomness of everything beneath them. As an extraterrestrial Tralfamadorian, Billy Pilgrim tells Slaughterhouse-Five: “Why me? It’s a very earthly question to ask Mr. Pilgrim… because here we are, insects trapped in this moment of amber. There is no why.”