How does this movie even exist? What, are you saying that there’s also a movie adaptation of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four?” Besides, Kurt Vonnegut‘s Slaughterhouse Five almost describes a world that isn’t tangible, its emotions and shock and awe and horrors are more present. Second to that is his imaginative ideas about the future, his non-linear plots putting his characters in a haze. It didn’t even occur to me to picture what our hero Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) might have looked like, even if Vonnegut describes him pretty well.
This source material screams Stanley Kubrick if he portrayed one scene every two minutes. This definitely is oceans and light years away from the comfort zone of the director we have ended up with, George Roy Hill, whom we expect more in dusty Western or Depression era landscapes. What Hill and Vonnegut do have in common here is that they both show the desolation caused by historical events. However, Hill gravitates more to history’s effects on the male psyche which is yes, fractured but is also trying to evolve and desperately survive.
Pilgrim isn’t your typical hero because he gets unstuck in time, able to travel from his present day in postwar suburbia to his stint as a drafted private to a futuristic planet where the Tralfamadoreans kidnap him. There’s an irony to ‘unstuck in time,’ suggesting a freedom only from linear constraints. He types that he doesn’t have control of when he travels. He can’t change passed horrors nor use his free will to alter the future. It’s unsettling how passive he is about this and his children equally react to his discomforting philosophy. And of course the editing between one scene – or rather one time frame from another – is impeccable, sometimes going back and forth within seconds, as Billy walks up the same footsteps that others like Edgar Derby (Eugene Roche) have, to similar destinations of horror.
And Sacks, who was 23 when filming started, is capable in the role of the time traveler, going through these phases of his life with ease and knowledge. In the physical sense he’s like a boring white boy/blank slate/archaic Ryan Gosling prototype with his well proportioned frame and blond locks. He’s both believable as the gaunt, awkward child fighting a crusade and as someone who has charmingly learned the tricks of manhood my default. I don’t know why this guy never stuck to acting, maybe it’s because he didn’t really stick out. George Roy Hill preferred his lead performers as stoic all-American archetypes instead of making them overact, letting that job be carried by the supporting characters around like the Italian stereotype Paul Lazzaro (Ron Leibman), etc.
I also can’t fully figure out why this ambitious movie didn’t stick to audiences neither but I have a few theories. For one, it fits less within the topical 70’s obsessions. Science fiction or a future-obsessed zeitgeist flourished within the 60’s and the 80’s, sandwiching this decade into a dry period when, offering its own dozen sci-fi films, it didn’t have a hold on its own aesthetics and additions to the genre. This feels more like a movie from a few years past when Vonnegut wrote the book, its anti-war sentiment and its transcendent philosophies about time and free will.
It’s also troubled with any book adaptations, especially those of contemporary/’postmodern’ works. Can any image justify Vonnegut’s words? When reading the book, we come across the name ‘Dresden,’ a traumatic flashback that persists despite how permanent his futures seem. ‘Dresden’ just makes me imagine this whiteness of destruction – a masochistic and romantic view, I admit – and seeing dead soldiers and crumbling buildings, no matter how shocking they look, inadvertently soften the blow.
Yet I still wish that big audiences rediscover this movie instead of it falling back into a new Hollywood curiosity. I wonder how they’d react to its views about America’s awkward fumbles during and after the war, especially in a surprisingly irreverent and humorous scene when Billy’s wife accidentally kills herself. But I guess people are too busy now, as they were back then, watching Cabaret or The Godfather.
- Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (alleganylibrarycollections.wordpress.com)