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'Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time' remains faithful to the author's spirit

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. A new IFC documentary called "Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time" will open in theaters and begin streaming on demand this Friday. It's co-directed by Robert Weide and Don Argott and produced and written by Weide, who began work on it almost 40 years ago. Our TV critic David Bianculli says it was worth the wait.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Kurt Vonnegut's most famous novel is "Slaughterhouse-Five," a brilliantly imaginative treatment of Vonnegut's actual experiences as a prisoner of war. He had survived the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. In that novel, the protagonist is a young, wide-eyed soldier named Billy Pilgrim who had begun experiencing his life not in a linear narrative, but jumping randomly between various moments.

This new documentary, "Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time," not only refers to that concept, it borrows from it. Here's Vonnegut reading from that book's opening passage while "Time Has Come Today" by the Chambers Brothers provides the perfect background accompaniment.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME")

KURT VONNEGUT: (Reading) Listen. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He's gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He's seen his birth and his death many times he says. He pays random visits to all the events in between, and the trips aren't necessarily fun.

BIANCULLI: The documentary "Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time" does the same thing. It bounces randomly rather than chronologically from point to point in Vonnegut's life with music and editing and photography and sequencing that are fully in spirit with what and how Vonnegut wrote. Eventually, we wind up at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, Ind., where young Vonnegut wrote for the school paper and learned both his craft and his particular style.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME")

VONNEGUT: This place had a daily paper, The Shortridge Echo. My parents worked on it, so that how long Shortridge had had a daily newspaper. I learned to write for peers. 'Cause I would write something in the paper and the next day, my fellow students would tell me what the hell they thought about it.

It was a swell experience for me because I learned to write journalistic style, which was to be clear and don't bluff and also to say as much as possible as quickly as possible. And my books are essentially that way. I give away the big secrets in the first page and tell people what's going to happen.

BIANCULLI: In the documentary, we hear not only from the author himself, but from some of his relatives and peers. From these various perspectives, we learn about Vonnegut the man, especially as a husband and father, in ways that are not always protective or flattering. But they're unflinchingly honest, as is Vonnegut himself when he visits his childhood home and confronts some dark memories, like his mother's suicide when he was young.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME")

VONNEGUT: It would have been 1943, I guess. She died in this house. It was Mother's Day. My sister and I found her. It was upstairs. Indeed, she was dead. It was a Marilyn Monroe thing. It was a combination of pills and alcohol; a lot of pills.

Suicide is supposedly a disgrace. And whenever I've said that my mother killed herself, other relatives would say no, no, that didn't happen. It was a family secret. She never recovered from profound unhappiness, and it was too damn bad.

BIANCULLI: Vonnegut's personal story contains more than that one tragedy, but also has more than its share of triumphs. The story of how he made the transition from doing public relations for General Electric to selling short stories and novels is told in loving detail here. So is his unexpected rise to fame as a counterculture hero in the 1960s and as a man who became a valued and plain-speaking commencement speaker at college graduation ceremonies until his death in 2007 at age 84. Sometimes, his advice was as simple as it could get, like to take a moment to enjoy the good times.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME")

VONNEGUT: When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment and then say out loud, if this isn't nice, what is?

BIANCULLI: Robert Weide first approached Vonnegut about doing a documentary about him in 1982, when Weide was a fledgling filmmaker of 23. Since then, Weide has done excellent biographies of the Marx Brothers and Lenny Bruce and has directed many episodes of Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on HBO.

Through it all, he kept returning to Vonnegut to do more filming. He ended up building a relationship and a friendship that finds its way into this documentary just as Vonnegut the author ended up writing himself into cameo appearances in some of his own novels. Early on in his film, Weide appears on camera to explain himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME")

ROBERT WEIDE: I didn't even want to be in this film in the first place. This was going to be a conventional author documentary with interviews with Kurt, his family, you know, biographers and scholars, but not me. I don't even like documentaries where the filmmaker has to put himself in the film. I mean, who cares? But when you take almost 40 years to make a film, you owe some kind of an explanation.

BIANCULLI: It's not a gratuitous appearance or conceit. Not at all. In fact, Kurt Vonnegut's relationship with Bob Weide and his approval of Weide's then-girlfriend Linda end up being a very important part of this documentary's non-linear narrative.

"Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time" is faithful to the spirit and subject of Vonnegut the storyteller, but has its own story to tell too. And its own climax, which does come at the end, is very unexpected, quite emotional and quite lovely. When it was over, my first thought was, if this isn't nice, what is?

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed the new documentary "Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time." It opens in theaters Friday, when it also starts streaming on demand.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about today's autocrats and how they're able to get away with so much. My guest will be Anne Applebaum, who has written extensively about autocracy. Her new cover story in The Atlantic is called "The Autocrats Are Winning" (ph). She just returned from the Poland-Belarus border. The autocratic president of Belarus has lured Afghan and Iraqi refugees to Belarus, then forced them across the border at gunpoint to destabilize Poland. I hope you'll join us.

I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MCCOY TYNER AND BOBBY HUTCHERSON'S "ISN'T THIS MY SOUND AROUND ME?") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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