Kurt Vonnegut once told me, “We don’t understand a thing about time.”, he said he put his head up against the trunk of a tree and he saw everything that had happened.Robert B. Weide
Before watching Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, I knew nothing about Kurt Vonnegut other than he was an author of some renown. So going into this documentary, I had no idea of what to expect other than the below synopsis:
Recounting the extraordinary life of author Kurt Vonnegut, and the 25-year friendship with the filmmaker who set out to document it.
So, suffice to say that this is a documentary I very much learned a ton from. For Vonnegut admirers, I think this is the most exhaustive resource of information of Vonnegut that exists to date. But that’s not what makes it special, at least not to me. What makes this documentary one of my favorites of the year is that it’s not just about Vonnegut but Robert B. Weide’s relationship with Vonnegut as well. Or as Weide says himself early on:
This was going to be a conventional author documentary with Kurt, his family, y’know, biographers and scholars…not me. I don’t even like documentaries where the filmmaker has to put himself into the film. I mean…who cares? But, when you take almost 40 years to make a film, you owe some kind of explanation. Full disclosure: IO was 23 when I first approached him about making this film, and I remember he was just about to turn 60, and I would refer to him as “The Old Man”. And a couple of months ago, I turned 60. How fucked up is that?Robert B. Weide
It was a swell experience for me, because I learned how to write in a journalistic style, which was to be clear and don’t bluff and also to say as much as possible as quickly as possible. And my books are essentially that way. I give away the big secrets in the first page and tell people what’s going to happen.Kurt Vonnegut
Direction is an interesting thing to talk about when talking about this documentary. As Weide stated in the previous quote, this documentary has been almost 40 years in the making. As a result, Don Argott was brought in to co-direct the documentary because, as Weide states himself, “I had made some early stabs at including myself in the narrative, but it was half-hearted and I just couldn’t stick the landing. I was always trying to minimize my role. I’d do some voice-over and then disappear for a half hour, and when I’d reappear, it broke the flow. Don was very focused on getting the balance right.”
Regarding that balance, the two directors complement each other wonderfully. When Weide gets lost in the weeds about Vonnegut, the presence of Argott’s hand is felt to help swerve the metaphorical car back on the road. Furthermore, you can feel the difference in their directing styles. Where Weide likes to sit and listen to Vonnegut regale him about his life, Argott is much more to the point. Anything that is seen as irrelevant to the conversation or larger narrative of the documentary is likely left on the cutting room floor or covered by archival footage.
I’ve said that I prefer laughter to crying because there’s less cleaning up to do afterwards. Also, you can shut it down faster.Kurt Vonnegut
Furthermore, like this year’s The French Dispatch, as the story evolves and grows, so too does the cinematography. When we begin the film in the early 1980s, a lot of the camerawork is mobile camerawork with tons of background footage (with some truly gorgeous nature photography!) to archival footage spliced into illustrative animation later on. In this way, it reminds me a ton of Belushi, where the animation is used to tell a story that Vonnegut couldn’t tell us himself or that there was no footage of.
It’s not easy to be easy to read.Kurt Vonnegut
On that note, the story is told in a non-linear manner. While I’m not always a fan of non-linear storytelling, it works because of how comprehensive of a look this is at Vonnegut’s life (2 hours’ worth!), the decades worth of footage complied by Weide over the decades he spent making this documentary, and Vonnegut’s own beliefs about how we experience time in a non-linear manner. I could see this being a significant detractor for mainstream audiences, though, as there’s almost no detail left untouched in this documentary.
We lived too long. We truly lived too long.Kurt Vonnegut
Additionally, the story focuses a little too much on Vonnegut. This is supposed to be about Vonnegut’s life and Weide’s relationship. However, I rarely felt the genuine connection they shared, artistically, or personally until the film’s final act, where it feels like a conscious decision by Argott to clean up the narrative almost 40 years in the making. However, it falls flat and ends up feeling like when you forget to clean your room and have guests coming over in less than an hour. So you hide the mess and hope no one needs to open your closet.
That said, the editing does a great job of hiding the mess lurking in the closet. It somehow manages to keep the viewer engaged for the entirety of its runtime by using non-linear storytelling to its advantage. All the editing does is to make the narrative, reminding the viewer of important events in short clips that took place earlier on in the documentary, creating a narrative tissue, so the viewer doesn’t get lost along the way.
Whether you are a Kurt Vonnegut enthusiast, like documentaries, or are looking for something to watch this weekend, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time paints a timeless picture of an American author and his friend over the decades.
Until next time!