Billy Pilgrim is “unstuck in time“— Aren’t we all?
Director (THE STING, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID) George Roy Hill’s film adaptation Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death is, in my opinion, that rare thing—an adaptation that’s maybe better than the original. That’s not to say that the novel is not a great book; it’s one of the great anti-war novels, worth ranking alongside Catch-22, All Quiet on the Western Front, Johnny Got His Gun, and The Red Badge of Courage, to name a few such. (Unlike most of these, it’s also hilarious.) I say, “Maybe better” because I only read the novel once, after having first fallen in love with the film, which I have screened many times. For years, I considered it my “favorite movie” and it remains a personal contender. So, I may be biased.
It’s one of those nearly “perfect” movies wherein all the pieces fit together into a seamless integral whole that is greater than its parts, wherein every scene, every action, every speech reveals character, advances the story, sets up something that follows or pays off on a prior set-up. Stephen Geller’s screenplay is a model of craft that every aspiring screenwriter would do well to study. An emotionally perfect film score augments the screenplay with performances of Bach by Glen Gould, along with Pablo Casals and the Marlboro Festival Orchestra. The sequence that introduces Billy, his fellow POWs, and the audience to the “fairy tale” city of Dresden, is a masterpiece of music and picture editing that sets up the ultimate destruction of city and citizenry ad profound tragedy.
It’s the story of Billy Pilgrim, an innocent soul, who becomes “unstuck in time” after surviving an otherwise fatal plane crash and near-death during subsequent brain surgery. Forever after, he is doomed—or blessed—with frequent and involuntary jumps between past—and future—events in his life. Much of the story is anchored in his experiences as a German POW who survives the horrific American firebombing of Dresden, as had Kurt Vonnegut. Those sequences earn novel and film their “anti-war” credentials. His “time travel” and adventure as an alien-abductee to the planet Tralfamadore qualify it as science fiction.
The film’s structure follows Billy’s jumps back and forth in time. Multiple non-linear story lines trace his life before, during and after his WWII misadventures. The jump cuts between story lines are always and ingeniously “triggered” by some story device–a situation, a line of dialog or sound effect (on or off-screen) or a visual image that associates two scenes in different story lines. The editing, by legendary Dede Allen, is flawless in its timing and precision. This structuring perfectly mimics the way associative memory works and offers a clue, or suggestion, that allows us to interpret the entire story as a figment of Billy’s multiply traumatized (by war and then by a fall from the sky into near-death) mind. In other words, is he unstuck in time or just lost in memory and imagination? The answer to that question either qualifies or disqualifies the science fiction genre designation for both book and movie. Personally, I don’t feel the need to select one interpretation or the other, feeling that holding both in mind simultaneously is itself a way of suspending time and transcending worlds.
The story is peopled by wonderful and sympathetic characters, some of them in cameo appearances from other novels in Vonnegut’s opus, like Howard Campbell, Junior (from Mother Night), Eliot Rosewater (from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine), and Bertram Copeland Rumfoord from The Sirens of Titan). Even Billy’s lifelong nemesis and ultimate assassin, Paul Lazzaro is made sympathetic by small touches that illustrate his inner torment. The German citizens of Dresden offer a gallery of humanity that is made heartbreaking by their collective doom as victims of war. We watch vignettes of everyday life, already knowing these beautiful people are doomed to a horrible fate.
Somehow, like the novel, the film manages to intermingle all this tragedy with comedy. That’s the genius of Vonnegut. He enables us to feel simultaneously traumatized while alternately laughing without either emotion undercutting the other. He mixes images and situations of horrifying reality and hilarious fantasy in ways that enrich our appreciation of both.
Whether we choose to believe that Billy travels in time and journeys to an alien planet or believe that both are his psychic defense mechanisms against life’s tragedy, our experience of his experience is entertaining, moving, and joyful.
Like Billy, we are all “unstuck in time”, consciously and unconsciously jumping continuously between past memory, present experience, and future fears, hopes and dreams. Like him, we can’t help it. We come “unstuck” from “here and now” to “there and then”, more often than not.
Like Billy, we might all do well to take to heart the Tralfamadorian teaching that,
“A pleasant way to spend eternity is to ignore the bad times and concentrate on the good.”