So It Goes: A new documentary offers a revealing portrait of author Kurt Vonnegut

Writer-director Robert B. Weide, best known for his contributions to Curb Your Enthusiasm, had been working on a Kurt Vonnegut documentary, with full cooperation from his subject, since the ’80s up until the author’s death.

As of 2007, when the man who had become his good friend over the years succumbed to a head injury after falling down the stairs at his NYC home, the film had not been completed. Now, 14 years after the esteemed author of Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle left the planet, the film is complete.

Something had compelled Weide (with the help of co-director Don Argott) to finally dive back in and finish his work and get the film out. Just like Vonnegut’s legendary struggles to complete his seminal Slaughterhouse Five, Weide had some struggles finding the binding agent that would hold his documentary together.  

Turns out, that binding agent was himself, for Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time is very much about two people, the subject and the filmmaker, and their touching bond that formed over the years. This is a movie that makes you feel good not just because it’s a good movie (and it is), but because the documented friendship that both men had with one another, and how they enriched one another’s lives, is truly moving. 

The film starts with Weide sitting down for his fifth interview of himself for the film, and he laments the notion of injecting himself into his movie. Him being in the movie proves to be a blessing and gives the film a sweet emotional core, providing the kind of warmth that most probably wouldn’t expect in a Vonnegut biography. 

Vonnegut’s participation is extensive, and his interviews in the early film veer away from true emotion as Vonnegut uses dark humor as a shield for most of the pain he’s endured in life. This is a man who was present with the military, in a bunker under the city, as Dresden was firebombed to oblivion (a key element of Slaughterhouse Five). His recounting of that experience is shockingly void of the expected kind of reaction (tears, disgust, etc.). He laughs a lot when he talks about death. 

As he grows closer to Weide, and grows older, the humor never goes away, but a surprising sensitivity begins to emerge. Weide covers Vonnegut warts and all with his film, and the author certainly had his stumbles on his way to fame. But the true depth and brilliance of the man overshines the low points. 

Late in the film, Vonnegut is seen delivering a speech that implores those listening to include many people in their lives, even the imbeciles. There’s a little bit of sadness to it, because Vonnegut didn’t leave the planet with a large swath of people close to him, according to this film. But there is the sweetness in knowing Vonnegut did achieve an important bond or two during his time on the Earth, and Weide was one of them.

The film works on a purely educational front as well, excellently covering the release of his major works in chronological order and providing sufficient stories and background for the different stages of his life that produced those books. Interviews with his sons and daughters are wonderfully candid, as they have no problem expressing the guy could be a bummer at times, but they always remained in awe of him. 

So, why did it take so long for the film to be completed? Weide provides a few excuses, including his sudden involvement with Curb moving to the forefront of his professional life. While the film doesn’t necessarily say so, perhaps it’s because Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time represents a goodbye to his friend, and goodbyes are painful. Sometimes it’s easier to delay that true goodbye.

Hopefully, this film finds an audience not just with Vonnegut fans, but with the uninitiated. I read a few of his works many years ago, and this movie has me wanting to explore more of his novels and, consequently, more about the man behind those novels. That’s the mark of a good documentary. 

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