KLAATU YOU (44)
October 28, 2020
One in a weekly series of enthusiastic posts, contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of our favorite pre-Star Wars science fiction movies.
SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE | d. GEORGE ROY HILL | 1972
Stuck in the craw of the original novel on which the film Slaughterhouse-Five is adapted is the poison pill that it should never be turned into a movie. Well, that’s not exactly true. More that it should never be turned into a movie that is appealing.
In the first chapter, Kurt Vonnegut writes that his breakthrough in writing the book after struggling with it for twenty-three years was when he visited his old war buddy Bernard V. O’Hare, who’s wife was appalled that he was writing a story that would inevitably glorify war and have a Hollywood ending. “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them.”
Vonnegut promises her that he will do no such thing and he keeps his word: the book is an unhinged trip through the mind of its damaged antihero, Billy Pilgrim, a befuddled, inert character who jumps in time in and out of his experiences as a soldier in World War II and later as a small-town optometrist who gets abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. No bugles for war can be heard.
As a book, it works. And when I was seventeen, the film was one of my favorites; I wasn’t the only teen who had a thing for alienated heroes bewildered by human existence. Now, though, I see the film as a beautiful failure, because, at its core there are several poison pills. And it’s not that there is no such thing as an effective antiwar film. The devastating Soviet movie, Come and See and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove are two of my favorites.
I’m writing a book about the book Slaughterhouse-Five and so I tracked down its screenwriter, Stephen Geller, who told me he was flummoxed by his task of adapting it. He complained to his producer, “The hero isn’t interesting.” The producer suggested he call Vonnegut, so he did. He asked Vonnegut if he had any pointers and all the author could muster was that Pilgrim loved his dog and his car. “I wanted to shoot myself,” Geller recalls.
I think Geller did as good a job as he could. But, crucially, what makes Vonnegut’s story work is the presence of Vonnegut himself. His first-person authorial voice in the first and last chapters of the book, as well as four crucial interjections sprinkled in Pilgrim’s story, are what make Slaughterhouse-Five a metafictional masterpiece.
And as if that wasn’t enough going against the film, there’s Michael Sacks, the wooden actor who plays Pilgrim. When we imagine a totally dull, inert character, it’s possible to follow him or her through a book. But when we watch an actor inertly play an inert character, he falls flat. Oh, and did I mention that he ages on screen with a makeup job that is laughably bad to 21st century eyes?
If there is still something lovable about the film, it’s primarily that it is an awkward extension of Vonnegut. Wouldn’t you know, the unpredictable, irascible author loved the movie! With his books, he managed to infect the world with his utterly unique off-kilter, critical-yet-loving mockery. But that didn’t translate onto the big screen. In fact, all of the movie adaptions of his books are considered failures. There’s something very Vonnegutian about that.
KLAATU YOU: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | Matthew De Abaitua on ZARDOZ | Miranda Mellis on METROPOLIS | Rob Wringham on THE INVISIBLE MAN | Michael Grasso on THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN | Gordon Dahlquist on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | Erik Davis on DARK STAR | Carlo Rotella on THE OMEGA MAN | Madeline Ashby on KISS ME DEADLY | Adam McGovern on SILENT RUNNING | Michael Lewy on THIS ISLAND EARTH | Josh Glenn on WILD IN THE STREETS | Mimi Lipson on BARBARELLA vs. SINS OF THE FLESHAPOIDS | Vanessa Berry on THE FLY | Lynn Peril on ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN | Peggy Nelson on SOLARIS | Adrienne Crew on LOGAN’S RUN | Ramona Lyons on THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH | Kio Stark on THE STEPFORD WIVES | Dan Fox on FANTASTIC PLANET | Chris Lanier on IKARIE XB-1 | Devin McKinney on IDAHO TRANSFER | Mark Kingwell on THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO | Luc Sante on THE TENTH VICTIM | William Nericcio on DEATH RACE 2000 | Rob Walker on CAPRICORN ONE | Gary Panter on ANGRY RED PLANET | David Levine on THE STEPFORD WIVES | Karinne Keithley Syers on ALPHAVILLE | Carolyn Kellogg on IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE | Sara Ryan on ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN | Lisa Jane Persky on PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE | Adam Harrison Levy on BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES | Gerald Peary on CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON | Susannah Breslin on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE | Seth on WAR OF THE WORLDS | James Hannaham on GOJIRA/GODZILLA | Lydia Millet on VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED | Matthew Daniel on FANTASTIC VOYAGE | Shawn Wolfe on ROLLERBALL | Erin M. Routson on WESTWORLD | Marc Weidenbaum on COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT | Neil LaBute on 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA | Vicente Lozano on DAY OF THE DOLPHIN | Tom Roston on SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE | Katya Apekina on A BOY AND HIS DOG | Chelsey Johnson on THE BLOB | Heather Kapplow on SPACE IS THE PLACE | Brian Berger on THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS | Anthony Miller on THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL | Seth Mnookin on NUDE ON THE MOON.
FERB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (1Q2021): REN & STIMPY | STEVEN UNIVERSE | TOP CAT | SHE-RA | DRAGONBALL Z & 20 other animated series. CARBONA YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2020): “Sex Bomb” | “Going Underground” | “Soft South Africans” | “Typical Girls” | “Human Fly” & 20 other Seventies (1974–1983) punk singles. KLAATU YOU (2020 weekly): ZARDOZ | METROPOLIS | DARK STAR | SINS OF THE FLESHAPOIDS | SOLARIS | & dozens of other pre-STAR WARS sci-fi movies. CONVOY YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2019): THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE | ROLLERBALL | BLACK SUNDAY | SORCERER | STRAIGHT TIME | & 20 other Seventies (1974–1983) action movies. SERIOCOMIC (2019 weekly): LITTLE LULU | VIZ | MARSUPILAMI | ERNIE POOK’S COMEEK | HELLBOY | & dozens of other comics. TUBE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2018): LOONEY TUNES | THREE STOOGES | THE AVENGERS | ROCKY & BULLWINKLE | THE TWILIGHT ZONE | & 20 other Fifties (1954–1963) TV shows. WOWEE ZOWEE (2018 weekly): UNISEX | UNDER THE PINK | DUMMY | AMOR PROHIBIDO | HIPS AND MAKERS | & dozens of other Nineties (1994–2003) albums. KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2017): THE KILLERS | BANDE À PART (BAND OF OUTSIDERS) | ALPHAVILLE | HARPER | BLOW-UP | & 20 other Sixties (1964–1973) neo-noir movies. #SQUADGOALS (2017 weekly): THE WILD BUNCH | BOWIE’S BAND | THE BLOOMSBURY GROUP | THE HONG KONG CAVALIERS | VI ÄR BÄST! & dozens of other squads. GROK MY ENTHUSIASM (2016 weekly): THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | WEEKEND | MILLION YEAR PICNIC | LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | & dozens more one-off enthusiasms. QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2016): “Tainted Love” | “Metal” | “Frankie Teardrop” | “Savoir Faire” | “Broken English” | & 20 other Seventies (1974–1983) new wave singles. CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2015): DARKER THAN YOU THINK | THE SWORD IN THE STONE | OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET | THIEVES’ HOUSE | QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST | & 20 other Thirties (1934–1943) fantasy novels. KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2014): ALDINE ITALIC | DATA 70 | TORONTO SUBWAY | JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | TODD KLONE | & 20 other typefaces. HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2013): “Spoonin’ Rap” | “Rapper’s Delight” | “Rappin’ Blow” | “The Incredible Fulk” | “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | & 20 other Seventies (1974–1983) hip-hop songs. KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2012): Justice or vengeance? | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | “KHAAAAAN!” | “No kill I” | Kirk browbeats NOMAD | & 20 other Captain Kirk scenes. KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2011): THE ETERNALS | BLACK MAGIC | DEMON | OMAC | CAPTAIN AMERICA | & 20 other Jack Kirby panels.