Before enjoying great success as a producer-director on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, Robert B. Weide wrote the screenplay for Keith Gordon's 1996 film Mother Night, the one fully satisfying screen adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut - albeit one of a number of small, erratically distributed indies left for dead amid the Miramaxisation of the movie marketplace. What we didn't know at the time was that Weide was a Vonnegut nut: a bright spark who discovered the author's writing as a student, went on to teach it as a bushy-haired professor in the 1970s, and spent several decades prepping a definitive documentary overview even as life (and Larry David) led him astray. We presumably have lockdown to thank for giving Weide one last, crucial nudge back in the direction of Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, the model of a passion project, in that it's been in the works for the better part of forty years. As the finished film (co-directed by Rock School's Don Argott) makes clear, if you came of age in the 1970s, and if you were possessed of an attitude that fell somewhere between irreverent towards and openly contemptuous of authority, Vonnegut could only serve as a tantalising touchstone. His best-known novels - from 1969's Slaughterhouse-Five onwards - were, by the author's own admission, "mosaics of jokes". ("He made literature fun," as one early testimony here puts it.) Yet they were also the work of a mischievous middle-aged man blessed with an eminently accessible writing style, opening a door to the adult world and letting slip all those things the grown-ups weren't telling you - about history, politics, religion, life, war, sex. (There were also hand-drawn representations of vulvas and arseholes, which no 17-year-old boy on this planet could resist.)
The success of Weide and Argott's film lies in the way it throws a friendly arm around the shoulder of fans and novices alike, ushering us all inside this secret society of refuseniks and malcontents. Just as the author's writing is said to expand impressionable young minds, so too the film describes a process of discovery. Weide befriended Vonnegut in the early 1980s, and the pair remained close until the writer's death in 2007, so we get not just the home movies but the story of how they passed into the filmmaker's hands; not just the (hilarious) lectures and public appearances, but the tale of why Weide can be observed over Vonnegut's shoulder as everybody packed up and went home for the night. Here is an intertwining of lives, interests, spirits, fates; a rare doc where the credited director did the lion's share of filming what now presents to us as archive footage, even if the image grain and certain wardrobe choices date that footage to roughly 1988. There's an obvious advantage in having one drolly comic mind working in tandem with another: Weide knows exactly where the funny (and thus humanising) is in what must have been several thousand hours of material. But the film also intuits where these laughs came from: the bedrock seriousness instilled in Vonnegut when, as a young man, he witnessed the bombing of Dresden firsthand. His critics damned his books as "aggressively extreme", yet having seen just how far Man could push it with planes and bombs, Vonnegut knew a few words on a page or brushmarks on a canvas (one discovery: his paintings, spiritually and stylistically aligned with the Picasso of Guernica) were mere spitballs at the back of the classroom. A parallel is drawn, between Vonnegut, endlessly rewriting Slaughterhouse in the knowledge this will be his defining text, and Weide in post-production, endlessly restructuring his film to reflect developments in the pair's friendship and the wider world. A third key participant emerges: time itself.
That subtitle derives from a passage in Slaughterhouse-Five that scrambles the protagonist's timeline and gestures towards Vonnegut's core belief that chronology is bunk, another lie we've all been told (and which less adventurous documentarists have internalised). Just as there existed several versions of that text, there have apparently been multiple cuts of Weide's film over the years, and part of the scholarly pleasure of Unstuck in Time lies in wondering what it might have looked and sounded like had it been delivered to deadline, or composed in some other form. Twenty years ago, with its subject still extant, Unstuck in Time would surely have been more deferential and dry, something like the feature-length Woody Allen study Weide turned in for PBS's American Masters. (The readings, by Sam Waterston, seem like a relic of this earlier version.) The film now playing in 2022 feels recognisably post-pandemic, which is to say richer for being more emotionally open, alert at every turn and reshuffle to the trauma encoded in Vonnegut's prose, and the faraway look in the author's eyes whenever he came within touching distance of discussing his wartime experiences. It's not hagiographic, confessing its subject's precariously aloof approach to domestic duties, folding in outside perspectives that help round its portrait of another lionised literary figure who could occasionally be at least a little difficult with those who knew him. But equally Weide gets a lot out of digging into his personal archive (and the morass of experiences it represents), the better to establish not just a personality but a philosophy, and to test how enduring that philosophy might be against the rigours of the 21st century. Having witnessed 9/11, another war in Iraq and the environmental damage being inflicted on the planet in his final years, the once-jovial Vonnegut reportedly told Weide "it's over"; a career initiated amid the apocalypse of WW2 is thus reassessed with the world once more on the brink. As it goes, so it goes.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is still playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Prime Video, YouTube, the BFI Player and altitude.film.