It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Robert Weide, 23 years old with a debut film about the Marx Brothers under his belt, wrote to his literary idol, Kurt Vonnegut, proposing a documentary on the Slaughterhouse-Five author’s life and work.
“He wrote me back, which was shocking to me, and gave me his phone number and welcomed me to call him, which I did,” recounts Weide, who like many had fallen under Vonnegut’s spell at high school. “Then we got together the next time I was in New York, which was later that year, and we hit it off.”
That was 1982. Vonnegut was about to turn 60 and Weide came to refer to him affectionately as “the old man”. Now, Weide himself is 62 and finally releasing the documentary that was a labour of love four decades in the making: Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time.
It is a beguiling film about the author of Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, Mother Night and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater who was described as an “oracle for the baby boomer generation” when he died aged 84 in 2007. Such is the easy intimacy between film-maker and subject that the viewer feels like they have spent a couple of hours’ in Vonnegut’s affable, smart and funny company.
There is also what Weide calls a “meta” dimension to the piece. Director Don Argott was recruited to tell the story of Weide befriending Vonnegut, following him to book talks and launches and patiently trying to get the documentary off the ground (the fundraising site Kickstarter helped with $300,000).
Weide reasons in the movie: “When you take almost 40 years to make a film, you owe some kind of explanation. Full disclosure.”
It was 1988 before Weide had pulled together enough money to start filming. He first captured Vonnegut conversing on a train while on his way to a speaking engagement in Buffalo.
“Then because the film was never properly financed – it was always out of my own pocket - it just became a hobby project where any time I had some spare time and some spare money, we’d get together and film,” he recalls via Zoom from Los Angeles, where countless tapes are shelved behind him. “It worked this way on and off for years until shortly before he died.”
In 1994 Weide took the author back to his childhood home in Indianapolis. Vonnegut is seen touching imprints of his child-size hand, and the hands of of other family members, that remain in concrete poured in the 1920s. The project received a boost when Vonnegut’s brother, Bernie, handed over some 16mm home movies that had been gathering dust in a closet.
But the memories also carried pain. In 1958 his beloved sister, Alice, died of breast cancer days after her husband drowned in a train accident. Weide reflects: “He would say how much he missed his her and how ‘she taught me what was funny; she imbued my sense of humour; we thought the same things were funny’.
“A lot of what they thought was funny had to do with a lot of good comedy, which is a tragedy befalling other people. If they saw somebody fall down on the street in Indianapolis, they’d laugh about it for years sometimes. He talked a lot about his sister in very fond terms. He never was that vocal specifically about how her death affected him but his daughter says in the film all these years later, ‘I don’t think he can even now get his arms around it’.”
But the defining horror of Vonnegut’s life had come earlier in 1944 when, just a few months after his mother had committed suicide, he was taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge in the second world war. He was sent to Dresden and put to work in a factory. He survived the allied firebombing of the city in 1945 by hiding in an underground meatlocker, only to be sent into the ruins to collect and burn the corpses.
Weide says: “I said, you were 22 years old, something like that that was going to change you, and his answer was: ‘The dogs in my neighbourhood where I was growing up had more to do with shaping my character than anything that happened during the war.’ OK, that’s interesting. And then his daughter says, oh, he’s full of it; he’s in denial; how can that not change you?
“When I was 22, I was just hanging out with my friends and having a good time, and doing what 22-year-olds do and getting into little kinds of trouble. He was pulling bodies out of basements and piling them up and torching them for sanitation purposes.”
The producer and director, whose credits include several seasons of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, continues: “But what’s interesting about Dresden is how he’s always trying to deal with it. He had witnessed something that happened that was huge and when he came back to the States after the war, nobody was writing about it, nobody was talking about it, unlike Hiroshima.”
Having written for his school and college newspaper, Vonnegut’s journalistic way of thinking made him wonder: why is nobody reporting this? Weide goes on: “He first approached it as somebody who just wanted to say, ‘This happened and I was there’. But he was struggling with how to tell the Dresden story for years. We see in the film all the iterations, all the attempts to tell the story.
“There are little intimations of it in some of his short stories and novels. Cat’s Cradle is a book about an apocalyptic event, which I’m sure was based on his experience there. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater has a reference to Dresden and a fantasy about Indianapolis being caught up in a firestorm. But he could never crack the code and then, with Slaughterhouse-Five, he told his Dresden story and it made him wealthy and successful and famous.”
But this wealth and success and fame came at a price. Fans turned up at his door and sometimes stayed for days. Vonnegut started a relationship with a photographer much younger than his wife, Jane, whom he eventually divorced.
Family members interviewed in the film say: “It was pretty clear that Kurt’s famous now and he’s left his drab life behind on Cape Cod and now he’s living the celebrity life in the fast lane of Manhattan;” “I wish it didn’t hurt him in the way it hurt him but I think fame is a horrible destructive thing to do to people;” “It wasn’t until he died that I stopped doing this but I thought that I hated him. I hated the way that he treated Jane.”
Weide reflects: “It’s the old story, isn’t it? It happens all the time. I was talking with somebody about the similarities with Arthur Miller, who was a struggling writer and then Death of a Salesman made him a huge international playwright overnight. The next thing he does is he leaves his wife of many years and I was joking that his wife was probably saying, ‘Go ahead, leave me now that you’re famous, who do you think you’re going to wind up with, Marilyn Monroe?’ Then he would say, ‘Well, actually,..’
“I think the marriage to him felt like it had petered out; I don’t look at it as good or bad or a huge betrayal. His wife was OK: she continued to have a good life, met a guy and got remarried. She and Kurt stayed friendly to the end. I didn’t feel it was something to spend an inordinate amount of time with, nor something to shy away from. It’s warts and all.”
Late in the film Vonnegut is seen railing against President George W Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney over the Iraq war. What would he have made of Donald Trump? Weide comments: “His daughters have said, thank God he died before Trump was elected because he would have just given up.
“During the Bush administration I wouldn’t say he had lost his sense of humour but he had at that point said, OK, there’s nothing funny about this anymore. He was disgusted about the invasion of Iraq.
“He would have seen Trump as a disaster, which he was. But Trump also is a character out of a Vonnegut book. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater has to do with people who have way too much money and don’t know what to do with it and still need more somehow. Trump would have been a character that he would have satirised.”
Weide remembers Vonnegut as having a down-to-earth midwestern sensibility and genuine interest in people. When fans approached him during their walks around Manhattan, he would surprise by asking their name and where they were from. Above all, Weide remembers his humour; they shared a mutual love of old film comedy.
“We laughed a lot together. In fact, the main thing I remember when I just reflect on our relationship was all the times we spent laughing and joking. There was a lightness to our relationship because there was no baggage. Unlike some of his kids who had this more complicated dynamic that you have with a parent than with someone else’s father, there was nothing but lightness.
“He was very prone to laugh. He loved bad jokes. He loved puns. In fact, there was so much laughter over stupid jokes and puns in our friendship that when I go back and I pick up one of his books and I remember how brilliant he was and how profound he could be, there’s really a moment where I think, that guy that I know wrote this book?
“How did that happen? I have trouble reconciling the two. A lot of it was dark laughter. We see in the film him talking about the demise of some of his high school and college buddies. He’s doubled over laughing and it seems kind of inappropriate but you chuckle.”
Vonnegut, who would have turned 99 last week, did not coin the phrase “so it goes” but made it his own by using it more than a hundred times in Slaughterhouse-Five. Weide comments: “The idea is you can’t mourn every loss and every death or else you’ll be doing nothing else because we’re just surrounded by loss and death. You acknowledge it, but you also know that you move on from it.”
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is released in US cinemas and to rent digitally on 19 November with a UK date to be announced