I’m not sure who I would be if there had never been a Kurt Vonnegut.
Starting when I was around twelve, my big sister Melody used to give me a pile of books for my birthday and a pile of records for Christmas. She chose the books and records very carefully, as she had assigned herself the task of making me cool and well-rounded. The first pile of books contained Cat’s Cradle by Mr Vonnegut. It was unlike any book I’d ever read. At the time I was deeply into fantasy and science fiction. Nothing wrong with that. But Cat’s Cradle opened my eyes to a lot of important things, among them: modern meta-fiction, humanism, the practical uses of religion, and the gentle, lacerating humour and genius of Vonnegut.
In some ways, this writer I had never met became the most important adult in my life for a few difficult adolescent years. I read and re-read everything he published as if they were letters written to me by a beloved uncle. He’s one of those writers who tend to attract a very personal response from his readers. He had a very unique voice, his personality was warm and cranky and loving and wise and at times terrifyingly angry. I engaged with his ideas and opinions on a daily basis as I grew up, and whatever practical philosophy of life I have managed to form is no doubt largely due to him. In particular, his proclamation from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
“…You’ve got to be kind.”
Over the years I wrote him long rambling letters, I even mailed them. I never got a response. I don’t blame Kurt, I blame his agent or lawyer, or whomever I was forced to address them to. It didn’t matter really, though. I was just responding to everything he had already said to me.
Looking at the movies that have been made thus far from his books, I’d have to say that they’ve been pretty spectacularly unsuccessful at capturing what is special about his writing. By far the closest to getting the feeling right is 1972’s Slaughterhouse-Five, directed by the great George Roy Hill. This is the only movie that adequately conveys the excruciating absurdity that comes across so effortlessly in Vonnegut’s prose. As when, in the midst of the total devastation of the city of Dresden by fire-bombing, the kindest character in the book is executed by firing squad for pocketing a small teapot he found in the smoking ruins. The writer allows a bird to comment on it thus: “Poo-tee-weet?”
So funny you could cry.
My reading of Vonnegut has encouraged me over my entire life to remember to step back and take the largest possible perspective on any given situation that is troubling me, which tends to calm me down. But then, as that distant perspective threatens to make me indifferent to the suffering of myself and others, he also reminds me to be kind, damn it.
And, as this is a blog about independent filmmaking, I’d like to share something I came across the other day while listening to the audiobook “Essential Vonnegut”, which is a collection of three interviews conducted by Walter Miller over a thirty year span. This is what Vonnegut had to say, circa 1981.
‘The enormous leverage of art I think is very entertaining to an audience – that a person starts with nothing and a few cents worth of paper or whatever and has leveraged it into this enormous artifact. The same is true of paintings and works of sculpture. What I object to about film is it’s so damn expensive now. You spend thirty million dollars and what do you get? You get something worth thirty million dollars. Where is the leverage? These excited announcements from Hollywood, you know, “We earned back everything we invested! We got back everything the thing cost!” So, this magnificent leverage of the arts is lost.’
That’s a very succinct way of expressing the particular thrill I get from making a no-budget picture, and why it is such a worthwhile endeavor: artistic leverage. So let Hollywood burn it’s money. You and I have bigger fish to fry.
Thanks, Uncle Kurt.