Review by Sean Boelman
Every artist worth a damn will one day get their story told in a biographical documentary, and the late author Kurt Vonnegut is finally getting his chance with this long-gestating film. However, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is more than your average recollection of his life and career thanks to filmmakers Robert B. Weide and Don Argott’s unique approach.
On one hand, the movie does exist to tell the story of Slaughterhouse-Five author Kurt Vonnegut Jr., but beyond that, it is also an exploration of Weide’s story of befriending Vonnegut while trying to make a more standard biography about him. This creates a very interesting exploration of the relationship between art and artist.
The pacing of the film is a tad uneven, as Weide and Argott struggle to maintain the more than two-hour runtime. That said, the structure of the movie is quite fitting. Much like the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five, Weide weaves throughout time, creating parallelisms between different points in Vonnegut’s life and work that are really fascinating.
Of course, the film doesn’t shy away from some of the more political aspects of Vonnegut’s writing. One of the more compelling portions of the movie explores how Vonnegut’s experiences in his youth would come to shape his political beliefs, which would then basically define his style of writing.
The film does an excellent job of making Vonnegut a compelling subject. Although he passed away in 2007, this movie has been in the making for decades, so there is plenty of great footage to offer his personal insight. And his personality is exactly what one would expect from the voice he expresses through his work.
At first, one may be asking why they are supposed to care about Weide’s role in this story, but by the second half of the film, he becomes an important figure. Some of the greatest insight we get into Vonnegut as a person comes not from the praise that is showered upon him by talking head interviewees, but simply seeing the interactions he has with the filmmaker and the influence he had on his life.
Weide and Argott also back up their dynamic storytelling with a nicely kinetic technique. In the many years that this movie has been in production, Weide has been able to amass an extraordinary amount of material, and this makes the film feel comprehensive even though it jumps around and seemingly misses a lot.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time does have some conventional moments, but for the most part, it’s not an average biographical documentary. It’s a great watch, regardless of how familiar you are with its subject’s work.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is screening at the 2021 DOC NYC film festival, which runs November 10-28.