So It Goes

Director Robert Weide leaves us wanting more Kurt Vonnegut in an amazing documentary

Kurt Vonnegut photographed by Jill Krementz, in West Cornwall, Connecticut in 1973. (Photo: Jill Krementz)

Like so many Vonnegut fans, Robert B. Weide, co-director of the documentary, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, discovered the author in high school, when his English teacher assigned the 1973 novel, Breakfast of Champions.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

But how many Vonnegut fans will teach a course on Vonnegut to nearly a dozen classmates before graduating from high school? (Weide did and has the pictures to prove it.)

Half a decade later, he writes the author to see if he might consent to being the subject of a documentary film. Should Vonnegut agree to participate, “I’m confident I could arrange for financing immediately.” (He turned to Kickstarter in 2015.)

Upon returning from summer vacation, Vonnegut wrote his would-be documentarian back. He’d enjoyed Weide’s previous effort, The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell, and was willing to let Weide film him, but, he warned, he had very little physical material to share with the production.

At the doc’s premiere, timed to coincide with the 99th anniversary of Vonnegut’s birth, Weide introduced the project with the maxim that films are never finished, only abandoned, adding that he’s been “trying to abandon this film for 40 years.”

On the flip side, dragging his feet for such a long time (33 years of actual filming and editing), afforded Weide unexpected opportunities to fill in the gaps Vonnegut alluded to in their initial exchange.

He draws on the vast resources of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library, which opened in Indianapolis in 2011, 4 years after the author’s death. Vonnegut always claimed Indianapolis, but it took a while for the city to repay the favor as robustly as it does now, with a handsome mural that gets a cameo in the film.

Weide gains the trust of Vonnegut’s daughters, Edie and Nannette, who are tart and funny, like their father, acting out the old man’s horrible posture at his typewriter, crying bullshit on his claim that he was more influenced by dogs he knew in boyhood than the Allied bombing of Dresden, and painting a vivid picture of the chaos that descended when their household expanded to include the four sons of Vonnegut’s beloved older sister, Alice.

Diehard fans worried that they know all there is to know about Vonnegut can justify the cost of their ticket with some astonishing, never before seen 16mm footage of a tiny, adorable Kurt cavorting on the lawn of his childhood home, compliments of older brother Bernard.

Gently touching the impressions of his siblings’ handprints on an exterior ledge of the 4-bedroom Craftsman house his father designed, Vonnegut insists that he feels no sadness revisiting the past, because the years he spent in this home were such a happy time of life.

Later he admits that he “can’t bear to look at photo albums, because they just make me so terribly sad.”

His conscious desire to lean into the ridiculousness of the human comedy was his claim to fame, and also his best coping mechanism.

Accompanying Weide on a tour of Shortridge high school, he busts out laughing in front of a plaque listing the names of classmates who died in WWII, naming one who had the misfortune to die in a training exercise.

The things he saw in WWII, some of which inform Slaughterhouse-Five, his most celebrated work, were “so nauseating, so horrifying, you don’t want to hear about it anymore. You don’t want to talk about it.”

“He laughs at the most inappropriate things,” daughter Nanette confirms.

Small wonder teenage readers fall under his spell in droves (though Weide’s former English teacher cracks herself up, reconsidering the wisdom of assigning Breakfast of Champions, with its drawings of  an asshole and a “wide open beaver”.)

The film’s evolution away from the conventional biography Weide originally conceived of allows for a number of playful elements–animation, a glimpse of a well known actor gleefully laying down voiceover tracks that are perfect Vonnegut forgeries, and outtakes in which he orders his willing subject to repeat a gesture, line, or anecdote.

There’s also a strong element of autobiography at work that will inevitably strike some viewers as indulgent, though Weide says it’s at the urging of Don Argott, who Weide enlisted to co-direct in 2013.Vonnegut

Vonnegut is so funny, so quotable, was so ferociously in the mix right up until the end, it’s hard not to hanker after the anecdotes that could have occupied the minutes currently taken up by scenes of Weide’s wedding, his wife’s performance in his revival of Vonnegut’s play Happy Birthday, Wanda June, and his lingering sadness over Vonnegut’s death.

On the other hand, reshaping the film to document the friendship that grew up between documentarian and subject seems to have been the medicine that cured Weide’s psychological resistance to finishing–sorry, abandoning–this particular project, and helped him weather a recent, ongoing hardship he reveals near the end.

The personal notes, emails and phone messages he shares give us a window onto another side of his late, great, famous friend.

Is it any wonder we’re left hungry for more?

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Ayun Halliday

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.

One thought on “So It Goes

  • November 17, 2021 at 12:38 pm
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    BFG just keeps getting better and better. We need more pieces like this one.

    Reply

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