Skip to main content

Time travel’s a bitch for you, isn’t it?

Slaughterhouse-Five
(1972)

(SPOILERS) It’s little surprise this adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s science-fiction classic has drifted into obscurity. As director George Roy Hill’s follow up to his breakout hit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and preceding the even bigger success of The Sting, it might be seen as occupying similar territory to, say, Peter Jackson misfiring with The Lovely Bones between Tolkiens (give or take a Kong). The Slaughterhouse-Five novel was only three years old when the movie came out, and if the audience reception was muted, it nevertheless garnered the Jury Prize at Cannes (so it was certainly better received than Jackson’s unloved effort). Vonnegut was profusive in his praise (“… a flawless translation… it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book”). But as Stephen King has proved repeatedly, literary credentials don’t necessarily foster cinematic discernment. Slaughterhouse-Five feels a little too literal minded, lacking the point of view that would make it a strong movie in its own right. I’m also doubtful that it played to the director’s genre strengths, however effective certain sequences are.

Stephen Geller’s screenplay tracks the major plot points of “unstuck in time” Billy Pilgrim, shuffling between war-torn Dresden, his late 1960s patriarchal life, and a yet-further future sojourn on the planet Tralfamadore. There, living within a geodesic dome, Billy is given porn-star mate Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine) by the fourth dimensional Tralfamadorians, eager to witness human mating rituals. There’s no shortage of ideas, but something is clearly missing. Hill’s movie lacks personality, which you could never say about Vonnegut’s writing, and he evidently has no affinity with the science-fiction element. For the most part, the transitions between time periods lack energy and dramatic heft. Slaughterhouse-Five is also largely humourless – the twisted demise of 1960s wife Valencia (Sharon Gans) being a notable exception – which is odd, given Hill was far from a slouch in that department.

The best-realised sequences are undoubtedly those during World War II, their content largely autobiographical on Vonnegut’s part (the horrors of Dresden haunted him and would inform much of his political perspective). Even here, though, we can see quite starkly the problems an adaptation faces. Was Sachs cast for his resemblance to a young Vonnegut? Maybe. He was a decent actor before he went off to Wall Street, but he makes Billy Pilgrim rather passive (to be fair, reflecting the novel). Which in turn makes the movie rather passive. Sachs is additionally constricted by various layers of prosthetics as Billy ages.

Other production and casting elements are similarly variable in success. There are decent performances from Ron Leibman as Billy’s fellow POW and persecutor, and Eugene Roche as his protector (who dies in a bitterly ironic wave of the hand). The Glenn Gould score is strong, and Miroslav Ondricek’s cinematography effective during the war sequences (again, a different approach for the other time frames would have been more impactful).

It’s stating the obvious, but material that sings on the page can prove tone deaf on the screen, and there’s an essential conundrum Hill and Geller fail to solve with a narrative built on the illusion of free will. The Tralfamadorians hold this fatalistic position, owing to their ability to see beyond the illusion of time. Discussing the death of the universe, they report that it will end with one of their number, experimenting with new fuels, will press the fateful button. He “has always pressed it and he always will” (one wonders if Steve Gallagher was inspired by this when writing Doctor Who’s Terminus).

This kind of causally contortive idea has been better expressed by Terry Gilliam in 12 Monkeys and various Philip K Dick adaptations (and confirmed, then rebuked, and then confirmed again in the various Terminators). Here, the lack of authorial voice voids any bite the conceptual musing might sustain. Vonnegut is full of ideas and opinions, but Hill rather flattens them.

The overriding issue in translating Slaughterhouse-Five to the screen is not dissimilar to another problematic adaptation of two years prior, Catch-22. Both feature hyphens and numbers in their titles, both tell their story through fractured time frames, both were received as anti-war, and both possess a dark sense of humour. And both had mixed cinematic fortunes. Indeed, while both productions were doubtless spurred by the ongoing Vietnam War, which had boosted the novels’ reception or ongoing popularity, they were entirely eclipsed by another picture set during an earlier conflict. One that more acutely captured counter-culture irreverence: Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. Also based on a novel, but as is often the case when a movie catches the zeitgeist, entirely eclipsed by it. By comparison, Slaughterhouse-Five is stodgy and over earnest, as if Hill is nervously backing away from Vonnegut’s literary style.

While the novel’s anti-war ethic comes through in the movie – particularly with the post-plane crash 1960s Billy’s fellow patient dismissing his first-hand experience of Dresden: “The hell with him. Let him write his own book” – other elements are less certain. The freewill aspect only really foregrounds itself during the later Trameldorian sequences (largely moved to the end of the movie). Further, because Hill and editor Dede Allen (also a regular for Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet) are unable to crack the sequential interplay, Billy’s final fate carries little import.

Most of the rest is vague at best. Vonnegut’s politics have been painted in broad strokes by some, but this was exactly the kind of characterisation he objected to (“If you want to take my guns away from me, and you’re all for murdering foetuses, and love it when homosexuals marry each other… you’re a liberal. If you are against those perversions and for the rich, you’re a conservative. What could be simpler?”) That he favoured socialism and spoke positively about communism might suggest he did mistakenly buy in to certain Hegelian dualistic constructs, but it would be too easy to reduce him to simple soundbites. Likewise, his outlook on religion, while being a self-professed atheist, took many of its values from Christianity (he also characterised himself as a freethinker).

Charlie Kaufman was announced as to pen a new adaptation for Guillermo del Toro nigh on a decade back. Kaufman has the right kind of bent for Vonnegut, but I doubt another take could fare substantially better. The remake – often in mini-series format – has been popular of late, including such notables The Name of the Rose and Catch-22, but this boom in serialised TV has also sputtered somewhat, broadly around the time all the hopes and dreams for Game of Thrones fell apart for a vocal section of the audience. Movies like Slaughterhouse-Five tend to become cult classics; it’s telling that it hasn’t, and probably stands as a warning to any thinking they know better and determined to give it another shot.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

By whom will this be rectified? Your ridiculously ineffectual assassins?

The X-Files 3.2: Paperclip Paperclip recovers ground after The Blessing Way stumbled slightly in its detour, and does so with some of the series’ most compelling dramatics so far. As well as more of Albert performing prayer rituals for the sick (perhaps we could spend some time with the poor guy over breakfast, or going to the movies? No, all he’s allowed is stock Native American mysticism).

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.