Portrait of the artist as an old man

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is a time capsule of a friendship, rather than a true documentary

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Digging through the Reader morgue, I found the obituary of sorts we wrote for Kurt Vonnegut in the April 12, 2007 edition — one day after he died in Manhattan of brain injuries he suffered following a fall. He was 84.

In our piece, we self-indulgent 20-somethings bylined the piece “By Some Unqualified Guy for SPR” and wrote about Vonnegut’s “doctrine of humanity and kindness and self-deprecation” in the face of an insane world and a universe that — by prevailing evidence — is frequently even worse. 

A screenshot from Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. Courtesy image.

“Themes of an unfeeling, unthinking God and a purposeless universe haunt many of his 14 novels,” we wrote, “a lurking fear informed by his experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany during the fire bombings of World War II.” 

Though he often presented himself as a “happy warrior,” cutting capers amid and about human frailty, we noted, “increasingly as he aged, it was cause for bitterness, disappointment and disgust.”

In other words, Vonnegut was a grouch, but who can blame him?

Certainly not Robert Weide, who we learn from the “new” documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time (currently streaming for rental on Amazon), was not only a dear personal friend of the author but tried and failed over the course of almost 40 years to bring his Vonnegutian panegyric to the screen.

Weide, of course, is the Emmy-winning director of the first few seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm and also well known for his documentaries about the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, among others.

As it turns out, Weide was well-nigh obsessed with Vonnegut as a student in the early 1980s — himself a preening 20-something — going so far as to organize his own student-run seminar on his works while still in college and writing the kind of letter that all fans dream of: One that is answered by the object of their adulation.

Weide and Vonnegut became collaborators of sorts, as the former launched a frankly aimless attempt at documenting the latter’s final 25 years — turning on the camera here and there whenever they found themselves together, giving the resulting documentary a distinctive “time capsule” feel. We see both men age, though one does so more gracefully than the other, as they commune together about life, memory and art, along the way constructing a truly compelling portrait of Vonnegut’s genius, which he seemed to wear with a puzzled sense of aggrieved gratitude. (Not going to lie: My wife and I both found ourselves misting up over a few of the scenes.) 

Most charming are the audio snippets of Vonnegut’s many answering machine messages to Weide over the years, revealing him to be the kind of buddy who gets lonely and just wants to hear your voice. Meanwhile, the viewer gets the sense that the documentarian has too much material to work with, and so the narrative structure takes the meandering track of an old pal poring over boxes of ephemera and remembering as he goes along.

To be clear: You must be a pretty serious Vonnegut fan to get much pleasure out of this exercise. Rogerebert.com gave the film three stars, noting that it feels more than anything like a wake (albeit more than 13-and-a-half-years after the fact), insofar as it can be rambling and haphazard at times.

“[T]he raw sentiment coursing through every moment of the affair, however heartfelt, can be overwhelming,” wrote critic Matt Zoller Seitz, “especially if you didn’t know the deceased as well as the folks memorializing him.”

That tracks 100% with my experience watching the film. By turns Vonnegut is lionized and revealed for the flawed character that he was — though sometimes those flaws seem rather uncomfortable for Weide to really unpack, which leaves curious silences in the archive. For instance, we get hints that Vonnegut wasn’t the best dad in the world (by a long shot) and a la Hemingway perpetrated an act of profound treachery against the wife who nurtured his life and talent through his critical early years. Yet this aspect of his character goes mostly unexplored.

That’s fine, so long as Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is understood for what it is, and that is a hagiography, rather than a work of unflinching portraiture. 

(One example: Vonnegut repeatedly downplays the impact of his experiences in Dresden on his life and writing, a statement at which Weide and others, including the writer’s daughters, seem to doubt in the way that any kid knows when “dad’s full of crap.”)

By the end of its two-hour runtime, the film clearly has as much to say about its creator as it does its subject, with Weide taking frequent center stage — even as he admits from the outset that he’d prefer not to be so intimately involved with the structure of the story he’s telling, he fairly shrugs it off. To borrow a phrase from his friend, “So it goes.”

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