Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time (2021)
Directed by Robert B. Weide and Don Argott
Written by Robert B. Weide
Starring Kurt Vonnegut, Robert B. Weide, and others
127 minutes, Not Rated
“If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reasons,” writes Bokonon, “that person may be a member of your karass.”
— Cat’s Cradle (1963)
It was the wee hours of Thursday, April 12, 2007, and I was sitting at one of the four-top tables at Mike & Molly’s, drinking a Leinenkugel and playing Egyptian Rat Fuck with Ian and the girl he was dating at the time. The only thing about that night that isn’t ingrained forevermore in my memory, whether a welcome evocation or not, is the name of that girl. I remember what she looked like. I recall that she impressively filled out a tank top that had “Dyslexics of the World Untie!” emblazoned across the front. She was taller than me and unabashedly cussed like a drunken sailor. I cannot, though– no matter how hard I try– cull her name from the annals of recollection.
Egyptian Rat Fuck is a card game. Near as I have ever been able to tell, Ian invented this card game himself. If that is the case, I haven’t the foggiest why he might have named it something so simultaneously ridiculous and vulgar, but I suppose, in many ways, those two adjectives could have been applied to Ian in almost any circumstance. The rules of this game are slightly hard to explain, so I will not bore you with the mechanics. As tempting as it is to write it all out in order to help put a reader there, in that bar, in that moment– kinda sorta in my head as it were– the rules are intentionally complicated and hard to follow. Suffice it to say that there is a lot of card flipping and counting of cards and the possibility of getting your delicate hands slammed and slapped hard when your competitors realize that cards of the same value are now face-up in the playing area. It’s a fast-paced and mildly sadistic game. I’ve seen heated arguments break out and friendships ruined because someone got too competitive and zealous. On this particular evening, Ian had already left what was sure to be a bruise tomorrow on the back of my right hand.
Earlier that evening, until about 10:00 pm or so, I had been at a different bar. The Esquire, which was located exactly one block west from Mike & Molly’s, was my normal bar of choice. One could usually find me there on a Wednesday night in the front windows of the room where they housed their pool tables. This room had nice, single-top table alcoves, and it was in one of those that I could usually be found of an evening clack clack clacking away on the keyboard of my laptop as I worked on stage plays, short stories, or episodes of my television series. Ordinarily, I would remain there until long after last call, but on this particular night, I had finished whatever I had been working on, so I wandered over to Mike & Molly’s to catch up with Ian. I had seen him earlier and knew where he would be.
Mike & Molly’s was my favorite local bar that I didn’t normally sit and write in. If it had been a different style of establishment, I probably would have written there instead, but Mike & Molly’s was a much smaller pub, centered around the nicest outdoor beer garden in downtown Champaign. There were not many tables inside, and the interior square footage was prone to become a tad claustrophobic as evening revelries wore on. Since the atmosphere didn’t center itself around pool tables, dart boards, and opportunities to watch the most currently-exciting sports competitions, it was also a much darker bar, less well-lit and illuminated. It was a great bar to hang out in, but it was almost impossible to write in uninterrupted. Mike & Molly’s did, however, have the extra-added benefit of being owned and operated by one of my best friends.
I had met Mike Murphy in the spring of 2002 when we were both cast in a musical adaptation of The Spitfire Grill to be presented at The Station Theatre, the most-celebrated theatre company in our area. Being the only two males in the cast, we spent quite a bit of time together and had become fast friends. Mike had a good twenty years of life experience on me, but we had similar tastes in music and literature. Most of the writers that I considered favorites at the time were also favorites of his. At the very least, he had read them and could have an intelligent discussion about them. Over the five years that we had been friends, we had collaborated more than once. I directed him a couple of times. I had played opposite him in a handful of productions. He had even, graciously, allowed us to use his spacious beer garden for original presentations or a fundraiser or two. He was (and remains) a valuable friend, and it was quite apropo, in retrospect, that I was in his bar, enjoying myself on the night that I am currently describing.
Also apropo of the particular evening in question: the conversation between Ian and I before we had dealt out the first hand of cards. It had been about the teleplay that I had finished just a few hours prior. It had been episode six of The Bolt, the television show that I was entrenched in creating for the first half of that year. The b-story of said episode concerned a robbery that had taken place in the bar where the series took place and the feelings of inadequacy suffered by two employees of the tavern who had stood idle, doing nothing, as the armed robbery had taken place. To prove to their friends and coworkers that they are not useless cowards, they stage a mugging. This ploy to save face goes horribly awry when the stranger they had paid to mug them is pushed off the sidewalk into oncoming traffic and hospitalized. It was dark, to be certain, but played for uncomfortable and inappropriate laughs. Ian had read the episode and loved it. This, naturally, led to some reminiscing on Ian’s part about other black comedy I had written over the years that he had found amusing. This was of interest to Ian’s girlfriend, who, it turned out, was also a writer with a penchant for gallows humor. From there, discussion evolved into a comparison of the authors we individually admired. It should not be the least bit surprising that our personal lists had a few writers in common. Chief among them was T. C. Boyle and Kurt Vonnegut.
Ah, yes. Kurt Vonnegut. My personal favorite American novelist and the focus of Unstuck In Time, the documentary that has inspired me to wax nostalgic about that night at Mike & Molly’s. This documentary, co-directed by Robert Weide and Don Argott, was released last year, but it covers a span of time from 1982 until 2007. The film chronicles the 25 years that Weide spent attempting to make a documentary about Kurt Vonnegut, the novelist that had been the inspiration for most of Weide’s career as a writer and director. Said documentary had been started and abandoned multiple times since it’s inception– sometimes because of events in Weide’s life and career, sometimes because of Kurt’s. Over two and a half decades, as production continually stopped and refreshed and halted again, Robert Weide spent a lot of time with Vonnegut. They became friends. By the time the documentary had been completed, it had, somewhat by accident, become less about Kurt’s tumultuous life and storied career and more about the long friendship that developed between the filmmaker and his subject. As a junkie for the words of Mr. Vonnegut, there was very little in the completed visual document that I did not already know about him, but I found the friendship fascinating. Weide’s finished film, which includes years of private correspondence between he and Vonnegut (letters, voice messages, interview outtakes), reveals a side of my literary hero that had heretofore been unavailable to me. I never met Kurt Vonnegut, never got to spend any real-life time with him, but this documentary gave me a taste of what that experience might have been like. Until now, I only knew Kurt Vonnegut from his novels and from interviews. This film was depicting the real Kurt, what he is like behind closed doors, how he acts and responds and feels when the eyes of the world are not upon him.
Seeing this documentary made me feel many emotions. I found myself somewhat envious of Robert Weide and jealous of the time that he had to bond with him. I appreciated the opportunity to be able to laugh with him behind the scenes as he shared stories about people from his past. I blinked to prevent the shedding of tears when his posture, facial expressions, and general demeanor revealed that he was, in fact, not as okay as he was wont to let on with the travesties he was forced to endure as a witness to the bombing of Dresden as a German prisoner of war during World War II and the effect the suicide of his mother or the death of his sister had on him. I sympathized with his agnostic stance toward religion and his inability to accept that “everything happens for a reason”. Most dramatically, this documentary made me miss him terribly.
Kurt Vonnegut passed away in 2007 at the age of 84 after falling down the front steps of his brownstone apartment in New York and hitting his head on the concrete. At the time, he was still writing and publishing essays, most of a political nature, about his cynicism toward the Bush administration. He referred to himself, at the time, as “a man without a country” and pulled no punches about his feelings on the direction our nation was heading. Those essays are direct and cynical, but they are also saturated with a sense of hope and optimism. Kurt felt, in his heart, that Americans were better than the warmongers in charge and his words encouraged the humanists among his reading public to stand up tall and be a voice for the less fortunate. I would have loved to see what he might have written during the Trump administration. I am wholly positive that he would have deftly articulated my own thoughts in a matter that I would have savored.
The true beauty of the essays that he wrote in those final years is that they were as close to unfiltered Kurt Vonnegut as he had, to that point, allowed his fans to see. His novels and short stories were always centered around humanist ideals and how the world at large punishes that train of thought (for example, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater concerns a billionaire who is institutionalized when he decides to use his wealth and influence to, you know, help people). In the essays, though, he could not hide behind Kilgore Trout or the conventions of science-fiction. It was just Kurt shouting into the void. If anything, the essays made all the more clear that the cynical optimism presented in his fiction was more than just a device to make his succinct prose seem less pithy. It gave the overarching message of each work a profundity that might not have been noticed. Vonnegut’s wryly funny narratives were tricking his readers into at least trying to be better people. In the end, he no longer had the energy for the smoke and mirrors of fiction. In the end, he was forced to be blunt as time was growing short.
I fell in love with the works of Kurt Vonnegut while still a sophomore in high school after a teacher that I admired recommended Slaughterhouse-Five for extra credit. By the end of my senior year, I had read all of his novels at least twice. I had purchased multiple copies of numerous novels because the copies I owned were continually getting battered from repeated readings. His final novel (Timequake), his first work of fiction in seven years, came out in the fall of 1997, and I reread every one of his novels in the weeks leading up to its release. I have found comfort in his stories when I was at my lowest, and I have found inspiration therein when I have been struck dumb in finding the words of my own. In his philosophies and world view, I found a kindred spirit and I have tried, over the years, to mirror it as I have grown older. To wit: awful, shitty things often happen to good people, but that doesn’t mean that the world is a terrible place.
Let’s circle back now to the beginning of this entry. It is the wee hours of the morning on Thursday, April 12, 2007. The bartenders (including Mike Murphy) were mere minutes away from announcing last call for the night. Ian, his girlfriend, and I were sitting at the table nearest to the door, entrenched in our card game. Many people had played with us over the course of the last hour or so (one of the complicated rules of the game included the ability for anyone who happened to be passing by to be able to “slap into” the game and continue play without having ever been dealt any cards at the beginning) and we were close to wrapping things up. There were comments made about how we enjoyed each other’s company, we should do this again sometime, wanna get lunch sometime next week? And then I heard my name being called over the din of the crowded bar.
“Polk!” someone had shouted.
They might have called my name more than once before I realized it was happening. It might have been Ian or his girlfriend who actually noticed it and pointed it out to me. I was mid-sentence when a complete stranger tapped on my shoulder, interrupting my train of thought, and informed me that Mike was calling for me.
I looked over my left shoulder to see Mike standing behind the east end of the bar. He was, in fact, motioning for me to come over to the bar and speak to him. I hopped down from my bar stool and proceeded across the fifteen feet or so of hardwood floor. I was only able to take a few steps, however, before I caught a glimpse of the television that hung over the bar and stopped short. The television was tuned into a news channel. The sound was muted, but I could read the words superimposed over a photo of my favorite novelist: The caption: VONNEGUT, INFLUENTIAL AMERICAN NOVELIST, DIES AT 84.
There is a common camera shot, typically used in horror films, that shows a character standing at the end of a long hallway with his back to the audience. The character is standing still, but tricky cinematography always makes it appear that whatever may be in the background– a door, an object or goal the character may be trying to reach or obtain– is moving further away from them as they attempt to approach. This shot is always a little disorienting and makes the hallway in question seem to be an interminable distance to move. I felt like that in that moment: the space between myself and the bar, the hallway; the television at the opposite end, a door to unspeakable horrors. For a moment, I was paralyzed, my breath knocked out of me.
When I had made my way to the bar, I asked Mike if he would turn the sound up. He did. By that point, the noise of the crowd had diminished, everyone capable of understanding that whatever it might have been that had drawn our attention to the television was important to, at least, someone in the assembled crowd. Mike and I watched the news report in shell-shocked silence as it recapped Kurt Vonnegut’s life and career. They made mention of his experiences in World War II and how they informed Slaughterhouse-Five, the great American novel that had earned Vonnegut his reputation. They showed clips of various speaking engagements and interviews over the years. One of those clips (one which also makes an appearance in Unstuck In Time) made the entire room roar with laughter. In that clip, Konnegut is informing the assembly before him that he has filed a class-action suit against Pall Mall cigarettes. “On the package,” he quips, “they promised to kill me, and I have been waiting for sixty years.”
By the end of the segment, you could have heard a pin drop in the crowded bar. Everyone was watching the report and was, to a man, riveted by the journalistic tribute to my favorite novelist. I was stunned, at a complete loss of what to say or how to feel.
Mike, who was not only well aware of my love for Kurt Vonnegut but was a tremendous fan himself, reached across the bar and comforted me with a firm hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay?” he asked, and after I silently assured him that I was with a nod, he made last call. I slid my own empty glass across the counter. Mike replaced it within a matter of seconds. It was if he had already begun pouring my beer while the news report was aired, figuring, perhaps, that I might need it.
“This one’s on me,” he said.
I thanked him for his unnecessary kindness and then asked if I could close out the rest of my tab. As Mike ran my credit card and printed out my sales slip, a young lady sitting near me offered her condolences. She asked for a recommendation. She said that she had never read Vonnegut before and wondered which novel might be a good place to start. I gave her my pat answer: The Sirens of Titan, then Slaughterhouse-Five. I made sure to recommend his short stories, too. “Check out Welcome to the Monkey House, in particular,” I told her. “That’s his most famous.”
I signed my credit card receipt, leaving a more than generous tip to make up for the free beer that Mike had tapped, and then started to head back to my table. Ian and his girlfriend were gathering their things, preparing to blaze a trail to their own home. Ian hugged me. We made promises to get together again soon to play cards or watch movies or compare notes on our favorite Kurt Vonnegut works.
After they had gone, I sat alone at the table to finish my final beer. I had gotten a notebook out of my backpack and began notes for something I wanted to write, maybe a tribute or an attempt to describe in detail exactly where I was in that moment for posterity. I didn’t have long, I knew, as the bar was closing up shop. My note-taking, jotting down, and doodling was interrupted after a few minutes by Mike, who was, once again, calling my name from across the bar. When we made eye contact, he took the empty pint glass I had left behind and held it aloft. The noise of the bar had resumed, but I could read his lips as he said, “A toast.”
I held my almost-finished beer up into the air. Other people in the bar followed suit. There we were, maybe ten or fifteen of us, holding our beer bottles, pint glasses, or $1.50 cans of PBR, a united appreciation of the legacy that Vonnegut’s work had left behind.
It’s been a while since I’ve recalled that night. It’s been, after all, fifteen years since Kurt Vonnegut passed. I’ve never truly forgotten it, though. It’s always there in the back of my mind whenever his name comes up, or I reread one of his novels, or I stumble across some other writer’s analysis of his work and what it means to them on the internet. Naturally, that night came back in full force after watching Unstuck In Time. I don’t, however, think about that evening any longer as the night that Kurt Vonnegut died. Instead, I remember it, fondly, as the night that I witnessed something beautiful that I had not seen before, nor have I seen since: a world in which the death of a writer is so profound that it silences a bar. In that moment, I belonged, however briefly; I was connected among people I might never have had reason to associate with before. I am forever connected to them. They are part of my karass.