Thursday 25 November 2021

Slipping on the stickiness of time

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was an unusual and perplexing author, so it seems fitting that Unstuck In Time — a
Academy Award-nominee Robert B. Weide (left)
chronicles his decades-long friendship with 
science fiction author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (right)
in a mostly excellent documentary. 
(Image via

documentary tackling this legendary science fiction author — would be unusual and perplexing.

Directed by Robert B. Weide, who’s best known for his Emmy-winning work on Curb Your Enthusiasm, the film is an affectionate (almost hagiographic) look at the author of Hugo finalists such as Cat’s Cradle, Sirens of Titan, and Slaughterhouse Five. Taking his cues from Vonnegut’s non-linear narratives, Weide flips from wartime Dresden, to 1980s New York, to Depression-era Indianapolis, trying to craft a holistic portrait of the author.

The director’s decades-long friendship with Vonnegut provides a through-line for the movie. Vignettes about the documentarian’s youth, correspondence with Vonnegut, and process of filming interviews, are interspersed with archival footage and the standard fare of a more conventional documentary. Given that Vonnegut often blurred the lines between fiction and autobiography, it seems appropriate that this documentary includes so much about the filmmaker attempting to grapple with the author’s legacy and the way their friendship shaped both lives.

It’s an approach that works … mostly.

Overall, the film suffers from this split focus between the personal view of Weide and his desire to make a definitive portrayal of the man and his legacy. When the film leans in to the historical perspective and a quasi-academic assessment, it’s easy to see how Weide’s meticulous approach earned him an Academy Award nomination in the documentary category. When the movie leans in to his personal relationship with his subject, his passion and affection for Vonnegut are effusive and likely infectious for Vonnegut fans. But each of these perspectives ends up getting short shrift; there are notable omissions from Weide’s personal perspective, and there are notable omissions from the historical overview.

Weide is too close to his subject to provide an unflinching look. But it also seems that he’s too much of a documentarian to lean into the personal. Both perspectives suffer for this, but one can also see why the movie took 40 years to make: it’s filled with incredible moments, and archival footage, and surprising snippets. With the amount of footage that Weide gathered in four decades, one can only imagine the riches that had to be left on the cutting room floor.
Before he was beloved
by the literary establishment,
Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s work
was recognized by SF fans.
(Image via Ebay)

One of the biggest omissions is Vonnegut’s relationship with the greater science fiction community. There is little attention paid to the fact that the science fiction community embraced his work long before he attained “mainstream” literary success. In fact, the only other science fiction author even mentioned in the documentary is Theodore Sturgeon, who appears only as a passing reference without offering the context that Vonnegut considered Sturgeon (among several other science fiction authors) a friend. Numerous of Vonnegut’s short stories are mentioned as well as publications such as Collier’s and Playboy, but the magazines Galaxy, If, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction are omitted from this version of his bibliography (an omission that is all the more egregious when one realizes that his most famous short story “Harrison Bergeron” first appeared in F&SF).

Vonnegut’s atheism is also neglected. Given the fact that disputes over religion were central to the breakdown of his marriage, and given that he took over from Isaac Asimov as president of the American Humanist Association after Asimov’s death (and eulogized Asimov with his trademark wit), this is a significant blind spot for the documentary to have.

The version of Vonnegut presented in this documentary, scrubbed clean of the unwanted stench of SFF fandom, will be familiar to many fans who have seen their most literary icons repudiate fennish roots. The idea that he was apart from science fiction is one that Vonnegut attempted to curate, especially late in his life. As Fred Pohl noted, “[Vonnegut] made the commercial decision to deny that he was a science fiction writer.”
Yousuf Karsh's portrait of 
Vonnegut (left) and Ray 
Bradbury (right)
(Image via

It is also notable how many of the interviews in Unstuck In Time are cut short; for example, just as someone seems ready to say something truly damning about Vonnegut’s behaviour towards his first wife Jane or his adopted children. Vonnegut’s second wife Jill Krementz is hardly mentioned at all, nor is his close confidante Loree Rackstraw, nor is his sexism or philandering, nor is his well-documented temper.

It would be difficult for a friend of Vonnegut to grapple with the author’s darker side, so these omissions are somewhat forgivable, though the movie might have been stronger if Wiede had fully accepted and leaned in more on the subjective voice.

For better and for worse, this is not a definitive biography of Vonnegut. Unstuck In Time is a flawed, perplexing, infuriating movie that much like its subject provides nuggets of wisdom, moments of insight, and a compelling story.

Tuesday 2 November 2021

Once more into the breech (Best Dramatic 1966)

This blog post is the ninth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

Although the Hugo committee solicited nominations for a Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award in 1966, the category was omitted from the final ballot. This made it the fourth time in eight years that a Worldcon had failed to honour a televised or filmed work of science fiction.
Harlan Ellison addresses the audience at the
1966 Hugo Awards ceremony. Though he'd
been quite insistent that there be a Dramatic
Presentation Hugo in 1965, he was oddly 
quiet about the subject in 1966 when he didn't
have anything eligible in that category.
(Image via Calisphere)

Interestingly, this fact seems to have escaped the notice of fandom at the time. Or at least, it wasn’t documented. Notable fanzines such as Yandro, and the WSFA Journal reported on the 1966 Hugo shortlist, and analyzed each category in detail … but failed to make so much of a mention of the absence of Best Dramatic Presentations.

Theodore Sturgeon, writing in the Australian Review of Science Fiction, noted the disconnect between the quality of science fiction on screen and fandom’s prevailing attitude to the medium: “In films, on TV, and even occasionally in the theatre, we are seeing a new attitude to science and science fiction. The result of this combination of new attitudes has been a resurgence of sf in the cinema - and the production of the finest sf films ever made. Yet the fanzines are empty of sf film reviews except those panning the duds.”

The members of our cinema club agreed in broad strokes with Sturgeon’s assessment that there were exceptionally good dramatic works that would have been eligible for a Hugo in 1966, though there wasn’t a clear consensus of what should have won.

The front-runner on several of our ballots would have been Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard’s noir detective story set in a technocratic dystopia ruled by a computer. Godard’s filmmaking is beyond dispute; the use of modern architecture, the stark lighting, and the innovative camera work in some ways make this the most timeless movie we have seen during our viewing of historic Hugo film and TV.

However, Alphaville has aged poorly in terms of gender roles;
It seems strange that Jean Luc Godard could
imagine a future in which the government is
a computer, but had difficulty imagining that
women might be more than objects.
(Image via Film Forum)
’s protagonist slaps women with little provocation on a regular basis, and most women in the movie have little agency or dialogue. Some members of our cinema club could not finish the movie because of this rampant misogyny.
It is difficult to assess a movie like this, in which the technical filmmaking is innovative and impressive, but much of the content is utterly unpalatable today. That said, in the context of the times, it does seem surprising that the 1966 Hugo Awards would ignore Alphaville; the movie was significant enough that it was reviewed contemporaneously in all the major papers, and even mentioned in the first season of Star Trek.

The 10th Victim has aged better in many respects in terms of gender representation as it features a female protagonist who’s just as competent and ruthless as her male counterpart, though some supporting characters fall into old and cliched tropes. The contrast with Alphaville is stark. It was the first time that Hugo finalist Robert Sheckley’s work had been adapted to the silver screen, and Italian director Elio Petri made it a modest international success. Depicting a future society in which government-sanctioned hunting of humans is a popular form of entertainment, the movie is stylish, beautiful to look at, and over-the-top camp. Despite some pacing issues, the welcome critique of capitalism and the top-tier acting (Italian legend Marcello Mastroianni and OG-Bond-girl Ursula Andress have superb on-screen chemistry) have earned the movie a place in the cult canon.

B-Movie horror auteur Jacques Tourneur directed his final — and possibly best — film War-Gods of the Deep. Loosely based on an Edgar Allan Poe poem, the movie depicts a conflict between the eccentric residents of a small Cornish village and 19th century pirates who live under the ocean and who have been made immortal by strange volcanic gasses. Featuring Vincent Price as the captain of the underwater pirates, the cast is top notch, and despite a very modest budget, the sets and production have a lot of atmosphere.

Though it's far from a perfect movie, the cast of
The 10th Victim is incredibly charismatic, and the
movie is filmed with panache.
(Image via
Interestingly, one of the science fiction films that year that would have the most impact on future filmmaking flew under the radar at the time: Planet Of The Vampires. The Italian-American co-production, which features an exploratory team encountering infectious alien spirits on an eerie planet, has been often cited as an inspiration for a variety of movies including Ridley Scott’s Alien, Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars, and the upcoming D.C. Superhero movie Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. While the acting is competent, and the set design is mostly run-of-the-mill, what elevates Planet Of The Vampires above many of its peers is the ending. This is a movie that takes a hard right turn in the last 20 minutes, and finishes with panache. (In what could be one of the all-time great double features, Planet Of The Vampires was released in the USA packaged with Boris Karloff’s compellingly weird “Colour Out Of Space” adaptation Die Monster Die!).

Invasion of the Astro Monster, directed by Ishirō Honda, is the most science fictional entry in the entire Godzilla franchise (Two members of our cinema club hadn’t read a synopsis before watching it and were surprised when Kaiju show up 20 minutes into a movie that starts out looking like a well-produced space exploration film). It is an extraordinarily silly movie, featuring evil aliens who kidnap Godzilla and Rodan, and use mind control technology to weaponize the monsters against the Earth. That being said, it is one of the most entertaining movies of the year, and at least one of us said she would have put it at the top of her Hugo ballot had she been able to vote at the Worldcon in 1966.

As the first decade of dramatic presentation Hugo Awards came to a close, science fiction on screen
Though Fantastic Voyage and Star Trek
were greeted with enthusiasm,
fans jeered and booed throughout
the screening of Time Tunnel.
(Image via IMDB)

was slowly gaining in respectability in the general public, but also among fandom. Studios and directors had begun to seek out conventions as a place to test market their new works; the 1966 Worldcon saw three such premieres, with Star Trek, Fantastic Voyage, and Time Tunnel all being screened at the con. And despite the lack of Hugos presented in the category, the convention presented special commemorative plaques to Ric Noonan for Fantastic Voyage, and to Gene Roddenberry for Star Trek. (Irwin Allen, who was at the convention to present Time Tunnel was surprised not to receive a similar honour … and put out a press release claiming that he had.)

This burgeoning respect had been a long time in coming, and 1966 would be the last year for a decade that the Hugo Awards would neglect to recognize science fiction on screen. It is a shame however, that some of the films that helped build up to such recognition were not celebrated at the time.