Kurt Vonnegut Jr., like his postmodern contemporaries, pushed the boundaries of what novels could be. He played with form in an anarchic manner, producing gleeful novels full of real import and meaning. His output is a long list of countercultural expressions that would end up defining popular culture; those who like Kurt Vonnegut love Kurt Vonnegut. He is the kind of author where you can’t just read one book. His unique style and unrivalled wit compels readers to consume everything they can find. And I would know: I adore Kurt Vonnegut; I’ve read all of his novels; I own a Kurt Vonnegut encyclopaedia, and I even have a Kurt Vonnegut plush-toy I once received as a gift, so well known is my fanaticism.
This documentary is for people like me, but also serves as a wonderful introduction to one of history’s greatest writers. Brilliantly, the documentary steps out beyond the normal confines of the form, becoming something more experimental and more human: a perfect match for the subject. In the end, it is not quite as experimental as it originally seemed — a non-chronological approach masking a typical structure — but what is documented is a gift. The film is more than a mere document of Vonnegut and his impact (as if that wouldn’t already be enough), it is a chronicling of a relationship (the growing friendship with the co-director of this work, Robert Weide) as well as a reflexive documentation of the film’s own creation. It serves as an exploration of Vonnegut as well as a deconstruction of itself as a film, and if that’s not Vonnegutesque, then I don’t know what is.
Our main timeline starts 39 years ago, after an introductory piece explaining the form of the documentary (in truly emotive fashion). Weide’s candid introduction, where he says how the film started to define itself, and become something atypical (rather than the normal documentary that was planned decades ago, when the project started), mirrors the work of Vonnegut. Most notably there is an echo of the opening chapter of Slaughterhouse 5, Vonnegut’s most celebrated novel. Before embarking on the fictional narrative, in which protagonist Billy Pilgrim is famously unstuck in time (hence the name of this documentary, a name that resonates through the unchronoloigal structure), Vonnegut explains the purpose of the novel and writes candidly about its inception. Vonnegut loved to spell out purpose at the start, perhaps most notably in Mother Night where the opening chapter gives you the moral before you even get the narrative, so it is lovely to see the documentary favour this approach. The film’s first chronological point is fascinating, though, as we start with background of Weide, not Vonnegut, chronicling influence rather than biography in a way that is actually more widely satisfying (and better captures the import of the legendary writer).
Much like how I began, Weide starts by asserting his credentials as a fan, leading to a story of reaching out to Vonnegut himself. We already know how a recommendation from a teacher at school, of a Vonnegut book, led to a lifelong fascination, so it makes sense that when Weide started making documentaries, he would want to cover Vonnegut. And this is where the film’s production begins, back in 1988: proposed as a straightforward doc.
Let’s jump back to the present: it’s 2021 and we’re watching Unstuck in Time.
It has been a long time coming and the film covers that space, as it morphed into something much more interesting, and much more profound. The meta element of the film documenting itself is satisfying but the real highlight here is the wealth of footage. Due to the obvious and growing friendship between Weide and Vonnegut, we get the kind of footage we would never usually see. This portrait is so achingly human and appropriately intimate, mapping not only a person’s history and influence but also how they interacted with people (respectfully capturing the private, not just the performative public). Vonnegut was a famous humanist, focusing this documentary on a human relationship only heightens this. It all just feels right.
It also makes it so emotional. The proximity to the subject is never an overstep, as the documentary becomes a documentary of Weide as much as it does of Vonnegut, and his life is well worth documenting. It is so wonderful that, like a Vonnegut novel, this spirals outside of its initial constraints and becomes something so much more atypical. At every point the actual craft is what is expected: behind the scenes conversations and talking head interviews (or some narration for old letters, and the like). However, the content being covered makes this not matter. You will find out all you wanted to know about Vonnegut, from all the right people, but you also get something wider than this. Because it was so long in the making, and because it chronicles its own making, the film becomes a journey. Though the initial structure calls back to Slaughterhouse 5, the eventual work is more similar to Breakfast of Champions or Timequake, two of Vonnegut’s best (the latter being truly under sung).
The documentary is not hagiography either. The filmmaker is so trusted by those around Vonnegut that we get candid conversation and insight. We see how Vonnegut could be a difficult person, especially as a father, but it is all presented from a position of love. We never pry too hard into his life, focusing on his output and what he gave to society as a public figure, but it is never blind praise. Vonnegut presented human beings as messy things, but as such worthwhile things. In his own documentary, he becomes the same. It’s very fitting. In fact, the whole thing is so fitting. It is such a comfortable and pleasant film, imbued with the intimacy of a close friendship. This is such a joy to watch as behind the scenes becomes centre-stage, and we get to just sit back and enjoy how compelling Vonnegut is, with unparalleled access. It is not quite as daring as it originally thinks, some of the style is overdone (lightly animated still images, with animated cigarette smoke or dust particles floating over them — seemingly trying to combat the stillness — seems unnecessary and is a tad distracting) — the same being true of the music, in places. But, everything else is just wonderful. The end feeling is that this documentary is a healing process, something that did so much for the filmmaker and therefore works so empathetically for the viewer. And this is so brilliantly Vonnegut.