Tuesday 15 November 2022

Battle of the Vonneguts - Hugo Cinema 1973

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

The hotel’s aging air conditioning system wheezed and struggled as the temperatures soared above 100F (30C) outside the Royal York in Toronto in the beginning of September, 1973.

Almost three thousand fans had made their way to Canada’s largest city for the 31st World Science Fiction Convention; a crowd that far eclipsed any previous Worldcon.
The CN tower under construction in 1973
The stump of the CN Tower in August, 1973 as
seen from near the Worldcon convention hotel.
(Image via CBC)

Looming over the proceedings was “the stump” of the CN Tower. The first few hundred meters of what would one day be the tallest building on the planet was slowly reaching to the sky a few blocks from the convention.

In a frescoed ballroom where Queen Elizabeth II had danced only a few short weeks prior to the Worldcon during her tour of Canada, two thousand fans (two thirds of the convention) squeezed in to catch an early glimpse of a highly-anticipated new animated Star Trek series for which associate producer Dorothy Fontana had brought an advance copy.

Dramatic presentations themselves clearly held an appeal to Hugo voters, though the award itself remained somewhat scorned. At that year’s ceremony, Best Dramatic Presentation seemed somewhat of an afterthought. Which is a shame, as it was a fairly good year for science fiction and fantasy cinema. Even the worst entry on the ballot was generally tolerable.

Unusually, two movies shared at least some of the same source material; both the mainstream hit Slaughterhouse Five and the ultra-low-budget Between Time and Timbuktu are based in whole or in part on Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 bestseller (also Slaughterhouse Five, though to be fair the latter uses very little of the novel). Despite this unique circumstance, it appears that neither Vonnegut nor anyone involved with either production was in attendance for the Hugo Awards ceremony.
Slaughterhouse Five is a beloved adaptation of 
Kurt Vonnegut's most famous work, but in some
ways it has aged poorly, particularly in terms of sexism.
(Image via Guardian.co.uk)

In fact, nobody from any of the finalist Dramatic Presentations were in attendance. Not The People author Zenna Henderson, not Silent Running script writer Steven Bochco, not even Silent Running director Douglas Trumbull who spent that week at the CFTO-TV Studios in Scarborough, barely 15 miles from the Worldcon.

In what may be one of the most eccentric selections in Hugo Award history, voters selected the television movie Between Time and Timbuktu. It is a chaotic and ultimately disappointing PBS television movie that stitches together various scenarios from essentially every major Vonnegut work up to that point including Cat’s Cradle, Harrison Bergeron, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, The Sirens of Titan, Welcome to the Monkeyhouse, and Slaughterhouse Five.

The overarching plot is that Stoney Stephenson (William Hickey) — a poet in modern-day America — wins a contest to travel into space, and on that trip he gets thrown into a dozen different parallel realities. In each of these realities, the viewer gets a brief glimpse of a better and more coherent movie that might have been.

Between Time and Timbuktu might be an obtuse and often irritating movie, but one has to admire the fannish exuberance that must have led a group of public broadcasting employees to create this. It’s clearly made by people who love every word typed by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., but who have no budget to bring those words to life, and no discipline to bring coherence to the script.

A more successful Vonnegut adaptation is Slaughterhouse Five, based on the author’s semi-autobiographical anti-war novel that was shortlisted for the Hugo in 1970. Told in non-linear order, the movie chronicles Billy Pilgrim as he slips forwards and backwards in time to experiences in the fire bombing of Dresden, to his marriage and suburban post-war life, to his abduction by aliens in the 1960s. It’s a piece of speculative fiction that was important in its day, and it’s difficult to complain too bitterly about the fact that the movie won the Hugo Award; at least two members of our cinema club hold it in some reverence.

Non-linear storytelling is especially difficult in cinema, so the fact that director George Roy Hill manages to make it both comprehensible and engaging is commendable. Michael Sacks brings an abiding humanity to the lead role. Miroslav Ondříček’s cinematography is painterly and draws in the eye. And the soundtrack by Glenn Gould is extraordinary.

But in many ways, the film version of Slaughterhouse Five has aged poorly; the depiction of women is demeaning and unpleasant to watch. Most of all, the fat shaming of Billy Pilgrim’s wife, and Pilgrim getting ‘rewarded’ with a young woman upon his wife’s demise, are beyond objectionable.

Based on the short stories by Zenna Henderson, The People was the ABC TV movie of the week on January 22, 1972. It’s a somewhat ham-handed production about a school teacher (played by Kim Darby) who is sent to what appears to be an anabaptist community that eschews technology. Over the course of the movie, she discovers that the residents are in fact telepathic aliens who fled the destruction of their planet. The conflict in the story — such as it is — involves tension within the alien society about whether or not to continue hiding their true selves. William Shatner’s role as the community doctor is one of his least Shatnery performances, but it’s also among his least memorable. This is probably the weakest finalist of that year.

Silent Running is an innovative and oddball
classic that provides memorable characters
both human and robot. To be blunt, it rules.
(Image via IMDB) 
Of this shortlist, most of our cinema club would have voted for Silent Running. The directorial debut of special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull is a slow, weird little movie about Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), an ecologist on a spaceship who is tasked with preserving the planet’s last-remaining forests that have been launched into orbit for safekeeping. It’s a fairly flimsy set up, but it provides compelling drama based around moral dilemmas that occur when politicians order Lowell and his crewmates to scuttle the ship. There’s some grey area in these questions; is it appropriate for Lowell to murder his crewmates to preserve the lives of trees and wild animals? Is Lowell correct to disobey unjust orders in the first place?

The movie’s helper robots Huey, Dewey, and Louie, are among the most memorable robots in all of science fiction cinema; as actors Mark Persons, Steven Brown and Cheryl Sparks manage to imbue them with a subtle empathy and dignity.

Trumbull’s filmmaking is technically excellent, both on the interior shots, and the special effects. Compounded with good performances and an absolutely killer Joan Baez soundtrack, Silent Running is a movie that looks better with each passing year.

But there is one omission from the shortlist that is somewhat galling. One science fiction movie in 1972 towers above all the others: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Based on a novel by Polish author Stanisław Lem, the movie follows Kris Kelvin, a psychologist sent to investigate occurrences on a remote research station orbiting a planet that is the movie’s namesake. When he arrives on the station, he discovers that one of the three scientists posted there has died, and the other two are in turmoil. The movie slowly reveals that the planet they’re orbiting is alive, and is sending manifestations to the station, possibly in an attempt to understand humans.
Solaris was well-known to SFF fans
in the 1970s, but somehow it didn't
ever appear on a Hugo award ballot.
(Image via IMDB)

Many have argued that Solaris is one of the finest pieces of science fiction ever brought to the screen, so its complete absence from the Hugo ballot is somewhat baffling. It won awards at Cannes and at the Chicago International Film Festival. It was contemporaneously reviewed in Fanzines such as Norstrilian News and Zimri. Brian Aldis suggests that “it bids fair to stand as the best science fiction film so far.”

The movie is filled with nuance and emotional interiority, as layers of the characters are revealed through their pasts, through the psychological turmoil that the planet’s manifestations cause them, and through the difficult decisions they must make. There’s also an interesting tension between the protagonist’s rationalist worldview, and his desire to believe his deceased wife has been returned to him. It’s a compelling piece of cinema, and should have been a frontrunner for a Hugo Award in any year it was eligible.

The Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1973 had one of the more credible winners, and one of the better shortlists to date. But the omission of Solaris brings the whole enterprise of recognizing the “best” science fiction cinema into question.


  1. SOLARIS did not get a full US release until 1976. Yes, it was screened in Chicago, and apparently in Melbourne, and likely at a couple other film festivals, but that said, while people in fandom new OF it, very few had seen it by Hugo nomination time, in early 1973. I mean, heck, even the official Russian release was not until February 1973. I would suggest that its failure to be nominated can be explained very simply: very very few Hugo nominators had seen it before nominations closed. No question, from this perspective -- perhaps even from the perspective of 1976 -- it's clearly the best SF film to have appeared (if only at a film festival) in 1972 -- but I don't think you can blame the nominators for not realizing that in early 1973.

    Of the actual nominees, my fairly clear choice is SILENT RUNNING, which I really enjoyed when I saw it, a couple of years after it first was released.

    1. Whether through neglect, or through a system that is designed to overlook foreign films, the absence of Solaris on the ballot in any possible year is a bad look.

      And yeah. Silent Running is dope AF, and would have been a better winner than S5.

  2. Slaughterhouse 5 is unforgettable although I haven't seen it in 40 years. I remember really liking Eugene Rouch's performance
    O haven't seen Timbuktu. I like Silent Running a lot although the science is pretty implausible, whichh Harlan Ellison pointed out for years. I would vote for it though narrowly over Slaughterhouse.

    1. Well, Harlan Ellison is of course known for his strict adherence to "hard" science fiction in his own stories.