“You could see through his work that he kept trying to find a way to approach [his experience in] Creative Dresden,” Weide reflects Vonnegut’s lifelong process, perhaps best described as making sense of humanity in the face of the glaring face of inhumanity.
“It’s a subtext in books like The cat’s cradle; in God bless you, Mr. Rosewater, main character Eliot Rosewater has this daydream of bombed-out Indianapolis. In The Sirens of Titan there are catastrophic battles with millions of people dying… He always tries to find a way to make it happen… It’s only Slaughterhouse-Five that he finally cracked the code.
Weide’s film traces this arc back and forth in time, from a privileged family upbringing suddenly taken aback by the Great Depression, to Vonnegut’s glory days as a critically acclaimed icon and inevitably later. savage of the American literary establishment. But over 40 years of accumulation and procrastination – years of growing friendships, laughter and tears – time itself brought a twist to the story that the filmmaker resisted in vain.
“Often, I resent when the author or the filmmaker puts himself in [their work] and assumes that everyone is going to be interested in them or their relationship to their subject,” says Weide. “I was really reluctant to do it, because I didn’t want it to come across as… ‘Oh, Kurt Vonnegut and I were such good friends.’ I mean, who cares, but at some point, it really felt like the only way out of this hole that I dug myself.
Especially after his subject died from a fall outside his Manhattan home at the age of 84. Weide found himself so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material, and by his own interwoven closeness to it, that writing himself into the narrative was “the only honest approach to take… Just pretending it was a documentary objective authorship would have made it a very dishonest film.
The bet pays off because Weide also manages, in his own way and in his time. We share some of his joys – a happy marriage to actress Linda Bates, more movies about his favorite comedians, directing the first five seasons of Larry David Calm your enthusiasm – but it also encounters enough personal sadness to bring the kind of perspective that only time travel can bring. In a film about one of the great humanists of our time, the effect is deeply, shall we say, humanizing.
“Yes, I think so,” says Weide. “Looking back, as reluctant as I was to take that approach… I don’t know what the movie would have been without it. You know, the number of letters and emails and messages I get from people telling me how emotional they were and how they cried during the movie and how devastated they were at the end… I mean , to say it through the eyes of a friend , I think that makes it more meaningful.
It’s perhaps another mark of Vonnegut’s oddly flexible relationship with time that he never asked his biographer when he was going to finish the movie they ostensibly spent 25 years making. “He was pretty patient about it,” Weide says. “I mean, it’s not supposed to sound dismissive, but he really didn’t care whether the movie was moving forward or not. There was a moment when he suggested to me, ‘You know, why not just scratch it?’ I said, ‘What, are you kidding?’ “
For Weide, “I am very relieved that it is over. I spent two-thirds of my life thinking about this movie, worrying about it, trying to make it. I’m glad I finally got it out of my system and put it out there for the world to respond to.
“It was a great excuse to meet him,” he adds. “Without having had the film’s excuse, there would have been no reason to write to him and suggest that maybe we hook up. You know, there’s that old adage about ‘Don’t meet your heroes “, but in this case, I must say that it worked quite well.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unlocked in Time opens at Cinema Nova on July 7.