Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time review – novelist gets a heartfelt portrait

Devotion to its subject kept director Robert B Weide from finishing his documentary about the great author, and his love shines through

Documentaries about acclaimed authors can often be formulaic; this honest and engaging study makes a refreshing difference. Robert B Weide, who has directed many episodes of TV’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, as well as documentaries on the Marx brothers and Woody Allen and written the little-seen adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Mother Night, now gives us a heartfelt personal film about Vonnegut himself – his hero, friend and father figure, and the writer of Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle and Player Piano.

Vonnegut mashed up literary fiction, sci-fi and standup comedy, making him a satirist and countercultural mainstreamer who tapped into the defiant spirit of the 60s. (Weide doesn’t mention Douglas Adams or Thomas Pynchon, though these are approximate comparisons I’d make.) This film is at least partly about Weide’s own story as a Vonnegut superfan since his high school days and his failure to complete his Vonnegut film for some 30 years, despite Vonnegut’s cheerful cooperation.

Somehow, Weide’s other directorial paying jobs kept getting in the way of this long-term passion project, but Weide kept in touch, kept talking to the great man, kept amassing interview footage. Weide leaves it up to us to see the truth: he didn’t want to complete the film because he didn’t want to end his relationship with Vonnegut himself. He didn’t want to say goodbye.

Perhaps this film doesn’t quite solve the riddle of Vonnegut’s comic personality. I would say that the truth about Slaughterhouse-Five is that it is a deeply serious novel: a book about Dresden (based on Vonnegut’s own experiences as an American PoW in the second world war, taken captive by the Germans and held prisoner in the city during the horrendous firebombing) which succeeds in making American audiences, accustomed to history written by the winners, understand what it is like to be on the receiving end of that kind of firepower. A very touching and insightful film.

• Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is in UK, Irish and Australian cinemas, and available on Altitude Film from 22 July


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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