From Curb to Kurt: Larry David Director Explains How His Literary Hero Helped Him Through Personal Pain | Movies

RObert Weide was still in high school in California when he volunteered to teach a class on Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. “There were maybe a dozen people in the class. We had tests, and people were doing homework and I was giving grades and stuff, so it was like a really cool Vonnegut book club,” he recalled. Never mind that Breakfast of Champions, the illustrated novel that had introduced him to his hero a few years earlier, wasn’t exactly conventional high school fare. “To give an idea of ​​the maturity of my illustrations for this book”, one usually reads, “here is my picture of an asshole”.

Weide still has the paperback he read back then. He lovingly leafs through his yellowed pages in a film that took him 40 years to make. Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is not exactly a conventional documentary. It’s both a portrait of an author during his lifetime and the story of a friendship born out of fandom over decades of letters, taped speeches and ripped-off interviews.

Its unusually long gestation means it has also accrued a subtheme as a chronicle of changing technologies, 1920s and 30s family films that Vonnegut’s parents made of their three blond, frolicking children around the lawn of their thriving Indiana home, passing through blurry VHS recordings, faxed pictures and scratchy phone messages. All have been carefully cataloged and kept in the Los Angeles home where the director lives with his wife, actress Linda Bates.

Calm your enthusiasm. Photography: AP

Weide grew up in Fullerton, Calif., the precociously nerdy son of a Jewish family, who sought out Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton films at a time when his classmates dreamed of playing in the Super Bowl. “Sports weren’t my thing,” he said. “The Marx Brothers were kind of my gateway drug and opened the door to this whole comedy world at a pretty young age.” Since then, he has specialized in documentaries on the big names in comedy, including WC Fields, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. He directed a not-quite-successful Hollywood prat-fest adaptation of Toby Young’s How to Lose Friends and Influence People, starring Simon Pegg, and was the lead director on the hit TV sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm, starring Larry David as a semi-fictional comedian. version of itself.

Vonnegut was an aging celebrity, working the inspirational speaking circuit in the absence of literary inspiration, when Weide wrote to him suggesting he would like to do a documentary about him. His business card was a film about the Marx Brothers, which he had made while still at university. “I waited and waited and got no response, so I thought, well, that’s it, and then suddenly there was a letter with that familiar handwriting on it that you see in Breakfast of Champions,” says Weide. “I was 23 and he was about to turn 60 and I would call him the old man. Now I just turned 63. How fucked up is that? »

Weide reading his childhood copy of Breakfast of Champions.
Weide reading his childhood copy of Breakfast of Champions. Photography: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Until his mid-forties, Vonnegut was an unsung author of magazine short stories and easy-to-read novels. He had given up a day job for General Electric to find himself struggling to support a large family including three of his own children and four of his sister, whom he and his wife, Jane, adopted after their parents died a few interval days. . Everything changed in 1969 with the publication of his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five, the novel he had struggled to write all his adult life. He revisited his experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden when the German city was burned down during World War II, striking a chord with a generation newly traumatized by the war in Vietnam.

Like its protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut survived by hiding in the meat lockers of an old slaughterhouse. “There were sounds like giant footsteps overhead. They were explosive bomb stickers. Giants walked and walked. Like Pilgrim, he and his fellow warriors emerged to find themselves tasked with digging up thousands of charred corpses from the ruins of the city. The film includes sinister archival footage. Yet, interviewed by Weide on a train journey to an address, Vonnegut ignores everything. “I didn’t feel much,” he insists. “It was a great adventure of my life… The neighborhood dogs when I grew up had a far greater influence on who I am now than the firebombing in Dresden.”

The camera then cuts to her two daughters, Nanette and Edith. “Did he really say that?” Edith asks surprised. Inappropriate laughter was his way of dealing with horror, Nanette points out.

Kurt Vonnegut in Unstuck in Time, in a classroom.
Kurt Vonnegut in Unstuck in Time. Photography: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Weide takes Vonnegut back to visit his old school, where he looks at the lists of the dead and whistles like a set of cheerful bellows as he remembers the randomness of some of the deaths. A college contemporary, he chuckles, was so excited upon learning of the bombing of Pearl Harbor that he hit his head against his bathtub faucet and died.

The theme of inappropriate laughter resonates through the film, from the minute Weide reunites with the schoolteacher who first introduced him to Breakfast of Champions. “Looking back, I’m horrified that I did that. It’s a pretty edgy and iconoclastic book,” she says. No comedy historian can remain immune to this problem, Weide points out. “Would Lenny Bruce be acceptable today?” I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think all the people who always say “Where’s Lenny Bruce now?” would cancel his ass after about five seconds on stage. People still revere him as a trailblazer, social satirist, speaking truth to power and all that, but I don’t think he would last 10 minutes these days.

Vonnegut’s exit in Slaughterhouse-Five was the catchphrase “And so on”, which ricochets around the novel 100 times. It also becomes a mantra for Weide’s film, as it becomes increasingly darkly autobiographical. “Before, I was worried that the friendship would get in the way of the movie, but later I started to worry that the movie would get in the way of the friendship,” he says. His solution was to hire a co-director, Don Argott, to add a second installment. “I didn’t even want to be in the movie,” he insists. “It was going to be a conventional auteur documentary with interviews with Kurt, his family, biographers and scholars. But when it takes almost 40 years to make a movie, you owe yourself an explanation.

Weide on the sofa, surrounded by VHS tapes, with her dog
Weide and friend. Photography: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

The story of Weide’s friendship with Vonnegut follows the story of his love affair with Linda, who appeared on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and now has an aggressive form of dementia. Vonnegut adored Linda. “He would have met her a few years after me, and he said, ‘You know, this one’s a sitter. When are you going to marry her? So I Married Her, in 1998. Vonnegut also said he would only visit the couple if Weide directed her in a revival of his 1970 play Happy Birthday, Wanda June (playing Susannah York at the cinema a year later, opposite Rod Steiger).

Weide duly did it in a Hollywood theater in 2001, although the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center prevented its author from living up to his end of the bargain. “The film is just a continuation of that common thread. He was a big part of the fabric of our lives,” Weide says. Vonnegut died after a fall in 2007 at the age of 84. “And then that happened with Linda, which affected my ability to even concentrate on the movie,” Weide says. “The thought gnawed at me that I needed to come out and talk about what we’re going through.” Vonnegut, the couple renewed their vows at the cinema and, in one of the last scenes, they walk hand-in-hand along an esplanade. “Linda is much more disabled now,” he says. “She doesn’t She can’t walk, she can’t talk, she can’t eat, and so on.

What saves this meta-story from self-indulgence is its echo of Vonnegut’s self-referential storytelling, notably through the recurring and autobiographical figure of Kilgore Trout, the unsuccessful author of 117 science fiction novels, of which a multi-eyed portrait hangs. on a wall of the Weide house. Vonnegut has written versions of Trout in novels and short stories over more than five decades.

In his last novel, Timequake, he freed Trout, naming Weide as one of the guests at the clambake thrown to celebrate the occasion. Weide, his friend, archivist and chronicler, now frees Vonnegut himself as a 20th-century mage who gazed at the stars and laughed at the terrifying randomness of all that lay below. As an alien Tralfamadorian says to Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five: “Why me? That’s a very earthly question to ask Mr. Pilgrim…because here we are, insects trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is in UK and Irish cinemas and on Altitude.Film from July 22

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