Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time was a labor of a lifetime for its director, Robert B. Weide. He shot, edited and tinkered with it on and off for nearly 40 years, often with little funding or idea how he would bring together the interviews, footage and artifacts he’d collected about Kurt Vonnegut’s life into a concise documentary. The solution was classic Vonnegut: Amid the biography, Weide weaves in his own story about the making of the film and the deep friendship that blossomed between the two of them. The result not only depicts Vonnegut’s life but also captures the tone and texture of Vonnegut’s published work. It’s about friendship, growing old, loneliness and togetherness, grief and joy, and the pain of creating art.
The film opens, of course, with that iconic one-word transition from the start of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five — in Vonnegut’s voice, no less, from a recording of him reading the novel. Then it jumps back to the bombing of Dresden and the birds singing “Po-Tee-Weet” in the aftermath. Then forward, to a news report about Vonnegut’s death in 2007 after a fall in his New York brownstone. Then, a dark room in 2019. Weide sits down and contemplates how many times he’d been interviewed for a movie he could never quite finish. From there, the film forges its own path through two connected stories — the production of the documentary and the burgeoning friendship between documentarian and subject, and the author’s life as it happened, more or less.
The film’s title and format are borrowed from Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy Pilgrim, the novel’s protagonist, meets aliens from Tralfamadore who explain to him that all time exists at once and that they only see it as we would a mountain range. “They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them,” Vonnegut wrote. Pilgrim moves back and forth across his life, and being able to do so brings him great solace in a world of great suffering. As a documentarian, Weide is essentially able to do much the same thing. As a man who still grieves his friend, it brings him relief.
On the face of it, this sounds like a creative choice that could easily go awry. (In our interview, Weide told me he was extremely nervous about inserting too much of his story into the film.) Turning a documentary into its own making-of film isn’t an uncommon tactic for filmmakers who find themselves stuck without a clear path forward. This is not that. Not at all.
There is not one second of the film that feels out of place or self-serving. The meta-fictional inclusion of Weide, his friendship with Vonnegut and the effect it had on the film only enhances its biographical elements. Like so many, Weide idolized Vonnegut’s work and connected with it as a young man. This isn’t simply a movie about making a movie about Vonnegut. It’s a movie about the way the author’s work still affects a man who knew him and the human connection forged between them.
During their first interview, shot in 1988, the author states: “My books are about loneliness and people being driven out of the Garden of Eden one way or another …” Vonnegut was, in many ways, a lonely man. His work speaks so directly to those in search of someone who can describe the way they feel. But it’s not navel-gazing or loveless: Every single one of Vonnegut’s books is hysterical, witty, absurd, filled with a reluctant love of humanity. The dichotomy of his hope for humankind and his hatred for our condition remains one of the most endearing elements of his work.
Although Vonnegut and Weide were friends, Weide has not created a mere hagiography. Vonnegut’s mistakes, as they were, are well-known. Interviews with his seven children — three from his first wife, Jane, and four adopted after the deaths of his sister and brother-in-law one day apart — reveal a man who became enamored with fame at the expense of his family. After his breakthrough success with Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt left his wife for a younger woman and moved to New York City. When the story reaches his later works, it’s mused that those novels — from Slapstick through Hocus Pocus — are about extended families at a time when he had more or less abandoned his own. Vonnegut’s children mention wounds that have taken a long time to heal, even so long after his passing. He was, in many ways, a living contradiction — a funny, warm public figure whose work would cause him to stomp around the house, a man who extolled the virtues of kindness and extended families who was nevertheless compelled to damage his own, someone who argued for egalitarian existence while chasing big paydays.
In his personal life, Vonnegut created and destroyed, much like the rest of us. He had trouble writing his books, discarding draft after draft, and finally finished his career on a novel partly about his inability to write a final novel. Vonnegut wasn’t a saint by any means, but he understood something essential about the way people live and what they feel. So for some, he’s just as good as one.
Unstuck in Time is not just about an author and a friendship. It’s about the themes inherent across Vonnegut’s body of work and how they still speak to new readers every day. Despite his roadblocks about how, Weide was driven to finish the film and, after almost 40 years, was finally able to do so when he put himself inside of it — when he allowed himself to become unstuck and view the totality of the project and his friendship with Vonnegut, as well as how those two things ultimately complemented one another. It’s hard to imagine a better documentary about Vonnegut, one that not only chronicles him but documents a life wholly influenced by him and his works. For a man who wrote so extensively about the importance of extended families, it feels appropriate that the definitive documentary about him would also be, in part, about the one he created around him later in life.
There’s one quote of Vonnegut’s I have always loved, one that doesn’t appear in Unstuck in Time but has still rumbled through my head since I watched it. It appears in Timequake, Vonnegut’s final novel and one of his best.
“Still and all, why bother? Here’s my answer: Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think as much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don’t care about them. You are not alone.’ “