Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Unsung!: Slaughterhouse-Five

For the longest time I could not figure out why this film did not get more attention in 1972. Then, I did some searching…

Slaughterhouse-Five won the Nebula and Saturn Science Fiction Awards and the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival; director George Roy Hill received a Director’s Guild Award nomination and screenwriter Stephen Geller received a Writer’s Guild Award nomination. Star Michael Saks was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. Yet, Slaughterhouse-Five did not receive a single Academy Award nomination. (Even if it had managed a few nominations, I doubt Slaughterhouse-Five could have fared well against 1972’s Godfather/Cabaret Oscar juggernaut.)

So Slaughterhouse-Five did get some attention in 1972… just not the kind of attention that should have somehow garnered the film “classic” status. The book is still with us, but the film has faded into obscurity. I remember CBS used to show it very late at night in the early 1980s, and I always used to stay up to watch it.

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Billy Pilgrim (Michael Saks) has become unstuck in time.
The film begins with Billy as a widower, alone in his house and writing a letter to the newspaper about his unusual condition. From there, the audience travels with Billy on a series of adventures, some grim (he survives, as Vonnegut did in real life, the dreadful fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany at the end of World War II) and some fantastic (he is kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and put on display in a zoo there). The audience, like the protagonist, never knows what event will be visited next.
The movie is based on a famous book by my favorite author, Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse-Five is still one of the most frequently banned books in America’s high schools, right up there with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye (sigh). The Modern Library Association recently named it one of the 100 Most Important Books of the 20th Century.

I consider Slaughterhouse-Five one of the most successful literary adaptations of all time – quite an achievement, since the source material is a book that many would consider unfilmable. I love how the film captures the feel and philosophy of Vonnegut’s writing, without slavishly aping the novel or filming it “page by page.” Both works are achronological, but they are achronological in two different ways. The film also captures something else that is elusive and unfilmable: Vonnegut’s unique world view.

I cannot find words to express how much this book means to me and how close I still press it to my black little heart. The book may have been responsible for me becoming an English teacher; I know it was responsible for turning me into a life-long reader.

AN ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: At one point in my adolescence, my parents forbade me from reading any more Vonnegut novels. They felt the books were making me “too cynical.” To any of you out there who are parents: want to MAKE SURE that your children do something? Simple. Just forbid it. I tackled the rest of Vonneguts’s oevure in record time and with renewed zeal. There is no fruit like forbidden fruit, and there is no fruit quite like the pear!

I really love pears.

Vonnegut came into my life at a time when I was just experiencing those existential questions that plague most teenagers. I was convinced that no one saw the world quite like I did – that perhaps I was crazy. In Vonnegut I met a kindred spirit; here was an adult who was willing to say that most of life was based on chance and happy accidents. Finding and reading Vonnegut during those formative years was my happy accident.

BACK TO THE COLUMN ALREADY IN PROGRESS: As most of you have guessed by reading these columns, I am particularly fond of character actors, and this film does not disappoint. Slaughterhouse-Five features a parade of great 1970s actors: Valerie Perrine (as Montana Wildhack), still six years from lampooning herself in Superman; Eugene Roche (poor old Edgar Derby), not yet typecast as the Ajax dishwasher in a series of improbably popular television commercials; Ron Liebman (Paul Lazzarro), thirty-two years before appearing in Garden State; Kevin Conway (Roland Weary), who has now enjoyed a forty-year career in film and television — his last big film role was in The Quick and the Dead; Sorrel Booke (Lionel Merble, of the Illium Merbles), four years before being typecast as Boss Hogg in The Dukes of Hazard; Gilmer McCormick (Lily Rumford), a year before her featured role in everybody’s favorite musical, Godspell; and Richard Schaal (Howard W. Campbell, Jr.)

ANOTHER ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: A few years ago, the famous Second City comedy venue in Chicago was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with a series of star-studded alumni shows that were far too expensive for the common man (me). Perhaps taking pity on frugal comedy fans, Second City scheduled a series of reasonably priced panel discussions in the afternoons, featuring all of those famous alumni. I attended the “Stars of the 1950s” panel and the “Saturday Night (The Ones Who are Still) Live Alumni“ panel. As my friends and I waited for the 1950s panel to start, I noticed a man in a wheelchair who was having a hard time getting through the aisle in the packed club. A bunch of us stood to let him through. It was Richard Schaal, who was a founding member of the Second City ensemble and appears as double agent Howard W. Campbell in Slaughterhouse-Five. For some reason, as he paused in front of me on his journey backstage, I called out, “Howard W. Campbell!” Without missing a beat, Schaal turned to me and shouted, “Oh, how I hated playing that Nazi son-of-a-bitch!”

I need to send Adam Riske a note and tell him we have another nominee for the Hall of Kick Ass.

Vonnegut was fond of bringing back the same characters from book to book. When Billy Pilgrim commits himself to a mental institution in Slaughterhouse-Five, his “roommate” is Elliot Rosewater, the protagonist of Vonnegut’s earlier novel, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater. The actor who plays Rosewater in the film, Henry Bumstead, gives an uncanny performance, perfectly capturing the complicated man from both books. I wondered if Bumstead had done any other acting. Turns out the answer was no; Henry Bumstead was actually the production designer on Slaughterhouse-Five. Perhaps he stepped in for a no-show actor at the last minute to save the day’s shooting.

Researching this column, I was surprised by how few films George Roy Hill actually directed (14) and how many of them I love: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Slaughterhouse-Five (of course), The Sting, Slap Shot, The World According to Garp, and Funny Farm. That’s a pretty good track record for a director as iconoclastic as Hill.

Slaughterhouse-Five also features impressive, sensitive editing by Dede Allen. If there ever was a thing called an “editor’s picture,” this is it. Having screened the film dozens of times in classes over the years, I have come to appreciate how much effort went into all of its “associative cuts.” A scalding shower in a German POW camp, for example, takes the audience to a very different shower two decades earlier. My favorite example of this cross-cutting technique occurs in a scene where Billy Pilgrim simultaneously has his picture taken in 1944 war-torn Germany and in 1964 suburban New York. The fact that Dede Allen effortlessly pulls off these feats of movie magic should come as no surprise; she also edited The Hustler, Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Slap Shot, The Breakfast Club, and Wonder Boys.

Guess what? Slaughterhouse-Five is available on Netflix Instant. Watch the film tonight, and then tomorrow you can start reading the book. Better read quickly—Tralfamadorians are coming to put you in their zoo.

7 comments:

  1. This movie used to play on A&E all the time and it seemed like an incoherrent mess. A few years ago I read the novel and quite enjoyed it. So when the film became available on Netflix last year I gave it another go... and thought it was terrific. I wonder how many movies were spoiled for me a bad televised version tainting my first impression. Catch-22 is definitely another.

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    1. I think watching either film constantly interrupted by commercial breaks would lead any sane person to shoot out the TV screen, Elvis style.

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  2. I had to skim this one a bit to avoid spoilers (it helps if you sort of read out of the corner of your eye) as I extremely coincidentally just started reading this last night! It's like President Obama performed some sort Vulcan Mind Trick on us!

    So you would stand firm on the suggestion to watch the movie and then read the book?

    There's a topic one could write extensively about - as an avid reader and watcher it's something that vexes me frequently. e.g. I'm loving HBO's Game of Thrones - I haven't read the books but want to - which one ruins the other more? Will the twists pay off better in movie or book form? Can one make a general statement about which to do first or does it depend on the material?

    Any guidelines you follow, JB?

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  3. Most if the reading I do is nonfiction, so it has been awhile since I have faced the novel vs. film conundrum. With Slaughterhouse, I don't think it matters. The book does have a wonderful first chapter where Vonnegut talks about writing the book; that chapter, as you can imagine, does not appear in the film. Also, what I consider to be the best joke in the film is not in the book at all, but Stephen Gellar is so attuned to Vonnegut's voice, you would swear it was in the book. Happy reading.

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  4. "Slaughterhouse Five" is also available on Amazon Video for rental (under three bucks).

    Haven't seen it (or read the book), but from your description of the editing for the showers/picture taking it sounds like the Wachawskis/Tom Tykwer and editor Alexander Berner took those editing beats to heart when they were cutting together "Cloud Atlas." That movie is filled with a ton of visual 'transition' beats in the editing where what's happening in one time period is either echoed or repeated by characters in another period/reality. As you described how "Slaughterhouse Five" was put together I read the same thoughts I myself had watching "Cloud Atlas" achieve consistent, easy-to-follow narrative flow through editing. Guess Dede Allen's and Roy Hill's influence live on through other filmmakers using this as inspiration.

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  5. Moments like that are what the Hall of Kick Ass is all about! We'll give him the following greeting: Hello. Farewell. Hello. Farewell. Eternally connected, eternally embracing. Hello. Farewell.

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  6. This is a movie I have been wanting to see. I plan to check it out on Netflix. Thanks for the info. It would be a good time to re-read some Vonnegut.
    I can think of another "too cynical" author. Harlan Ellison, my parents did not ban him, if they did I am sure I would have doubled down on Ellison.

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