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.

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