There is an intimacy in Robert Weide's Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time that takes what could have been yet another ordinary doc about an extraordinary fellow and turns it into a feature doc worthy of its iconic subject matter - the simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary author Kurt Vonnegut.
If you were to come to Indianapolis, and you should, you would discover that Indianapolis loves Kurt Vonnegut. From the 38-foot high Kurt Vonnegut mural created by Pamela Bliss that adorns the building at 339 Massachusetts Avenue to Indy's ever-growing and wildly popular Kurt Vonnegut museum, Indy continues to embrace our native son and one of contemporary literature's most compelling writers.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time captures everything that we love about Kurt Vonnegut along with a few things we didn't and more than a few things we never quite understood. It's a film, quite literally, 40 years in the making constructed by a filmmaker, Robert Weide, who started out to make a documentary about a beloved writer and somehow became that writer's friend, confidante, and out of necessity a presence in this film that comes to life nearly 15 years after Vonnegut's 2007 death following a fall in his New York brownstone.
I must confess that I was not one of those young men who adored Vonnegut, whose Slaughterhouse Five helped define his trajectory as a novelist and turned him into a household name with an anti-war novel based upon his own experiences in war.
It was those experiences in war that always seemed to be at the heart of Vonnegut's presence as a human being and as a writer. He seemingly operated and wrote from some sort of post-traumatic haze, his sense of emotional and physical scarcity dotting his life's landscape and reminding us nearly constantly the iconic man we loved was simultaneously acting out of both aspiration and woundedness.
Vonnegut seemed to have tremendous insight that he was a flawed man who wanted to be less flawed.
The documentary that Weide started out 40+ years ago to make inevitably changed over the course of those 40 years. Vonnegut himself seemed rather elusive, a fact that was both truth and illusion. Weide was genuinely surprised not only that Vonnegut agreed to the project but also that Vonnegut would end up producing a wealth of source material from which Weide could begin building what essentially turned into a retrospective of sorts.
Along the way, however, Weide and Vonnegut became more than filmmaker and subject. They became friends. After Vonnegut's death and as Weide sat bewildered by how to finally finish this project, it became obvious that integrity demanded transparency about the friendship and a structure not far removed from Vonnegut's own Slaughterhouse Five. Weide brought in co-director Don Argott to help structure the project and, indeed, the two have been able to assemble one of 2021's finest feature docs. IFC Films has, quite wisely, picked up the project for distribution as this is a film that deserves to be seen far and wide.
Despite my own years of struggling with PTSD, I've always had difficulty connecting with Vonnegut's writing. I've long respected it, however, I've struggled to connect with it in the ways that culture seemingly demands. You can feel PTSD's lingering shadows in Vonnegut's writings, even those seemingly disconnected from war and trauma, and you can feel Vonnegut's own PTSD lingering in the shadows of Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is a documentary that likely shouldn't have been a documentary because it was simply so risky to create a motion picture this way. It's astounding that Weide tried it and it's even more astounding that Weide has succeeded. The film truly covers Vonnegut's life from his Indianapolis childhood to his time as a Prisoner of War in World War II through his family life, early professional years, his 1969 breakout, and the many years of chasing the next level of fame even at the expense of the values he so eloquently preached.
It is much to Weide's credit that he doesn't falsely glorify Vonnegut, a man who has always struck me as sort of the literary equivalent to John Lennon - he said all the right things and occasionally did them. There's something masterful about the ways in which Weide constructs this film, intentionally or not, to parallel the themes of Vonnegut's writing and, perhaps more importantly, his life. It's no surprise, really, that Indiana has long embraced Vonnegut. We Hoosiers love our flawed humans and toxic heroes. I mean, just look at our elected officials and you'll realize we give our hearts and souls to men and women who say all the right things even if they never quite live up to them.
I don't know if Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is a perfect documentary. I do know that it's the perfect documentary for the remarkably complex, richly human, immensely talented, and tragically flawed Vonnegut. It's a documentary that actually feels like it comes out of something deeper than your usual documentary research but actually a full-on immersion into its subject matter. Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time feels lived in.
Vonnegut is one of those authors who finds new fans with every subsequent generation of readers. Vonnegut wrote in such a way that his words practically crash like waves over the life experiences and cultural expectations of generation after generation like some sort of rite of passage. Weide obviously understands this and Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time captures it.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time made me feel like I not only understood Vonnegut but that I knew him. It made want to pick up his books one more time, even those I've never quite made it through, and give it another go now that I'm older, a little wiser, a lot less traumatized, and a guy who is starting to live into the words and values that I've preached a good majority of my entire life.
With intelligence, grace, compassion, and humor, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time becomes one of 2021's most engaging and immersive documentaries.
Kurt Vonnegut would have loved it.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic