Screening Room: ‘Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time’

Back in the early 1980s, documentary filmmaker Robert B. Weide decided to make a documentary about his literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut. He shot some footage, the two men hit it off, and soon they were good friends. But the closer Weide (who went on to create Curb Your Enthusiasm) got to Vonnegut, the harder it became to finish his movie.

Decades later, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is finally finished, and opens this Friday. My review is at Slant:

More a student of comedy than practitioner, Weide has a nerdy on-camera persona that balances well with what he shows of Vonnegut. A cherubic, tipsy-on-his-own-jokes presence, the author is represented here in interviews that Weide shot with him starting in the early 1980s, as well as in clips from talk shows and public speaking engagements. Weide and [his co-director Don] Argott could have easily settled for a film about Vonnegut’s comedic instincts, his ease with irreverent one-liners being one of the reasons that his books are so beloved by a certain kind of puckish adolescent. But they make a worthy effort to pull back the veil on the man and show how a gloomy dissatisfaction brooded underneath his quippy surface personality…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Read It and Wing It

A notable anti-academic observation on the writing life from Kurt Vonnegut, collected in George Plimpton’s The Writer’s Chapbook:

I grew up in a house crammed with books. But I never had to read a book for academic credit, never had to write a paper about it, never had to prove I’d understood it in a seminar. I am a hopelessly clumsy discusser of books. My experience is nil…

Writer’s Desk: The American Writers Museum

Sometime in about 2017, there is going to be a new museum on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue right around Lake Street: The American Writers Museum.

According to Publishers Weekly, the project—which sounds both awesome and awesomely quixotic—has been in the works since 2010. Since there won’t be much that a museum of this sort can resort to in terms of permanent holdings (Mark Twain’s pipe, perhaps? Rooms full of first editions?), it looks like they will be focusing on attention-grabbing experiential and interactive exhibits.

writersmuseum1That will mean including things like an interactive “word waterfall.” Which only makes sense, as they will need to bring in the punters in between their Magnificent Mile shopping jag and stroll through Millennium Park. But that will also apparently mean the prospect of interesting-sounding exhibits like the one asking”Are you a Bukowski or Vonnegut?

Hopefully they will include writing workshops and other educational functions as part of the museum’s mission.

Now that it’s happening, it’s curious why this kind of museum is only now being created. Earlier this year, Chicago artist Mia Funk raised this point in an interview with the museum’s president Malcolm O’Hagan (who was initially inspired by the Dublin Writers Museum) in Tin House:

It does seem absurd that America has so many museums devoted to fine art–an activity which really doesn’t touch a lot of people’s lives–but in a country composed of so many immigrants and children of immigrants, where stories have played such a part in remembering our pasts and unifying us, that it has taken us so long to honor our writers collectively.

Here’s hoping they do our writers proud.

Perhaps the most important question, though: What are they going to sell in the bookstore?

Writer’s Desk: Vonnegut’s Rules

You might think of Kurt Vonnegut, he of the dimension-shifting narrative and the fourth-wall-breaking narrators, as one of those writers who just threw everything onto the page to see what worked.

Kurt Vonnegut, 1972 (WNET)
Kurt Vonnegut, 1972 (WNET)

But the last century’s greatest sci-fi humorist next to Philip K. Dick had his own rules for the art of writing. He laid them out in the introduction tho his 1999 odds-and-ends volume Bagombo Snuff-Box:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

  4. Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.

  5. Start as close to the end as possible.

  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

If you assiduously follow even two of these rules throughout your piece; you’re set.

(h/t: boing boing)

Writer’s Desk: Michael Connelly

When you’re looking for advice on writing, the masters are of course always reliable. But it might be wiser to just dive right into the ranks of those who spend their lives toiling in the fields of pulp. After all, it’s the creators of genre fiction who are more likely to have to work with brutal deadlines and for fiercely judgmental audiences.

Michael Connelly, 2013 (Brian Minkoff)
Michael Connelly, 2013 (Brian Minkoff)

So, here’s Michael Connelly, of the Harry Bosch series of novels, as well as The Lincoln Lawyer, talking to Writer’s Digest about his three favorite bits of writing advice. They’re all gold:

The best crime novels are not how cops work on cases; it’s how cases work on cops. — Joseph Wambaugh

Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. — Kurt Vonnegut

When you circle around a murder long enough, you get to know a city. — Richard Price

Department of Weekend Reading: April 11, 2014


Department of Adaptations: Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘Slaugherhouse Five’?

Guillermo Del Toro ponders one of his 'Pan's Labyrinth' beasts.
Guillermo Del Toro ponders one of his ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ beasts.

After many years of nothing much, horror/fantasy wunderkind Guillermo Del Toro is finally getting back into the game. His long-in-gestation R-rated take on H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness never quite came to fruition for the usual reasons (detailed in a 2011 New Yorker profile of Del Toro here) and he ultimately left The Hobbit to make room for Peter Jackson; an arguably poor choice either way.

Now, Del Toro’s got a massive monster mashup movie coming out, Pacific Rim, wherein alien monsters battle giant Robotech-like mechas for the survival of humanity. Could be like Godzilla (the lamentable remake) meets The Transformers or it could be honest-to-God bang-up summer fun. There’s also Crimson Peak, a The Shining-esque British haunted house story starring Benedict Cumberbatch, coming out later this year.

slaughterhouse5-coverIn even more intriguing Del Toro news comes this tantalizing note via an interview with The Daily Telegraph, that not only is Del Toro looking to film Slaughterhouse-Five  but he’s interested in having Charlie freaking Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Kaufman write the thing.

Granted, Kaufman is more exciting to hear about here than Del Toro (Vonnegut’s concept of being “unstuck in time” would appeal perfectly to Kaufman’s sensibilities, while Del Toro’s maybe too creature-feature for this tonally complex a book), but this is still potentially great news.

Not knocking George Roy Hill’s 1972 version (trailer below), but this is one book that might be worth knocking the dust off and introducing to a new generation, and Del Toro would hopefully take some risks on it that other more award-ready filmmakers wouldn’t.

Reader’s Corner: Sci-Fi Goes to War

slaugherhouse5The military has ever been one of the structural supports of much American science fiction. Whether they’re heroically battling off alien invaders or corrupting scientific research for their nefarious and war-mongering needs, the boys in green have a long history in the genre.

That’s why it’s particularly interesting whenever you run across a science-fiction writer who actually served in the military and then brought that sensibility to their writing. The responses can vary widely, from the jingoistic Reagan-era militarism of Jerry Pournelle to the ironic action of David Drake to the highly satiric and jaundiced Kurt Vonnegut.

Over at i09, Charlie Jane Anders does a superb job of studying all of the ways these authors brought their experience of war to bear in their fiction, as well as other fantasy and sci-fi authors who were less vocal about their military service (from Tolkien to Clarke).

Reader’s Corner: Kurt Vonnegut


Next month, Delacorte Press is publishing the collection Kurt Vonnegut: Letters. Now, normally these sort of things are of interest only to the extremely engaged fan—those completists who just have to own every scrap of material written by a particular author. The “lost” letters of Edith Wharton, say.

However, the Delacorte edition promises to be something different. Among the items collected within its pages is this selection from a January 1947 “contract” drawn up by Vonnegut and his pregnant wife, Jane (the two had been married for sixteen months):

i. In the event that my wife makes a request of me, and that request cannot be regarded as other than reasonable and wholly within the province of a man’s work (when his wife is pregnant, that is), I will comply with said request within three days after my wife has presented it. It is understood that my wife will make no reference to the subject, other than saying thank you, of course, within these three days; if, however, I fail to comply with said request after a more substantial length of time has elapsed, my wife shall be completely justified in nagging, heckling, or otherwise disturbing me until I am driven to do that which I should have done;

Eminently reasonable, but just slightly cracked in execution. In other words, exactly what you would expect from the author of Cat’s Cradle—the sanest book on the insanity of modern life that you can find. Funniest, too.