This doesn’t start in Dresden, 1944. Its beginning is nowhere near Ilium in 1968 or on the planet Tralfamadore at any given moment – since they all coalesce for the Tralfamadorians anyway. We begin our story – most of which is true, maybe, certainly – in the mind of screenwriter Stephen Geller somewhere between 1969 and 1972.
The same place is Billy Pilgrim’s memory, any time after his fellow optometrists fell into the snow.
Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death explores the non-linear life of Billy Pilgrim, who sees time out of joint, who experiences his life and his death and his life and his death in no particular order, and wh
o is somewhere along the line abducted by the inhabitants of the distant planet Tralfamadore. They are amused that the people of Earth think time should be in any way linear and still further that they are so concerned about the concept of free will – a concept they know doesn’t exist.
It is simultaneously a fiction composed by a character named Kurt Vonnegut. Or not. But we’ll return to this. Remember, time is far from linear.
The novel is a typical slice of Vonnegut, rightly lauded for its inventiveness and imaginative use of meta-fiction in the framing device that sees the author himself mull in the first chapter over what kind of war novel to write. Like several of Vonnegut’s works, it is difficult to conceive of any translation to another medium being anywhere near as successful as the source text. His trademark instruction that his reader “Listen:” (so often with colon intact), here and in other novels, establishes Vonnegut as the literary equivalent of a campfire storyteller, his treatise-like fictions seeming to exist as transcripts from an earlier, oral narrative tradition. They are parables for modern times, the details unimportant. The novel, for instance, opens with the claim: “All this happened, more or less.” Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to Vonnegut and it shouldn’t matter to his readers. His narratives belong to the fabric of the medium; the message, absent from such adaptations as Alan Rudolph’s Breakfast of Champions (1999), sits somewhere else.
Where, then, does George Roy Hill’s 1972 film treatment sit? Not quite at the empty, literalist, plot-focussed extreme of Champions, but along the same axis. It, however, comes from a period in American film-making when films had ‘something to say’. But for Stephen Geller, that something wasn’t necessarily what Vonnegut had in mind.
The film adheres to the fractured narrative style of its literary antecedent in a way that would have been unthinkable in the more conventional Hollywood of only five or six years earlier. Pre-MPAA, obsessed with continuity editing and dodging the ire of the Hays Code, the Hollywood system was exactly that. Hill’s film, then, forms part of a wave of reinvention, finding comfort in the dynamic meta-narratives that had percolated elsewhere but were now crashing into the Hollywood mainstream.
Yet there is a maturity evident in Hill’s choice of source text that makes this fractured storytelling style more purposeful than in the editing experiments of Easy Rider or The Wild Bunch, or their stylistic antecedents in the French Nouvelle Vague. Here is style not as an attention-grabbing device or a mechanism for emphasising themes but as a function of the story itself.
It is in this environment that Geller’s reading of the text becomes understandable. The enforced non-linearity of the narrative suggests the need for a theme to emerge organically from this structural choice. The fatalism in Vonnegut deprives the text of a traditional character arc. Its absence from the novel is less significant as the point of view is Vonnegut’s own, pontificating as the objective eye purely by virtue of being the narrator. Yet his is still a subjective position as he identifies himself in the text, so any arc present is as much his as it is that of the other characters. The omission of an equivalent figure from the screenplay is understandable, as it would deprive Geller’s translation of the greater directness demanded of the cinema medium. The obvious replacement point of view is Billy, which means Vonnegut’s SF trope is about to receive a subjective slant.
The result of this paradigm shift is an unusual neo-noir. Its means of exploring the fallibility of memory, a theme extrapolated by Geller and given flesh in his screenplay, is by hypothesising an atypical memory type and bequeathing it to Billy Pilgrim. In his version, it is not time that is out of joint, but Pilgrim’s consciousness being explored in a temporally transformative way.
Taken objectively, Pilgrim’s perspective suggests, as the Tralfamadorians would have it, that causality and free will are illusions, that time is non-linear. But Geller and Hill lay enough evidence to suggest that this interpretation is no more than superficial. For instance, Geller has the film open with Pilgrim composing a letter to a newspaper, in which he describes to the editor (and us) his time slips. The setting appears to be contemporary, and Hill films the letter in POV shots. We perceive with Pilgrim and are reminded that there is no such thing as an objective point of view, that points of view are by definition subjective. Is this film, then, a depiction of a mind out of joint?
Further evidence supports the view that Pilgrim’s processing of memory has been somehow dislodged. Other than the scenes set on Tralfamadore – which might equally be a figment of his imagination, constructed as a justification for his distorted perspective – most of what we see of Pilgrim’s life consists of trauma after misfortune. The horrors of war, a loveless marriage, ungrateful children, constant abuse from fellow soldier Paul Lazzaro, the bombing of Dresden, his wife’s premature death.
Billy’s only escape comes in the form of Tralfamadore and his companion there, starlet Montana Wildhack. Indeed, the only (extremely brief) snippet of Pilgrim’s pre-war existence that we witness is a moment in which he, as a boy, is thrown naked by his father into a swimming pool as a literal ‘sink or swim’ exercise.
We’re assured in the novel that “All this happened, more or less.” No such assurance introduces the film, so the possibility exists that our journey through Billy’s past is one through unreliable memories. When Billy first meets Lazzaro and fellow soldier Roland Weary on the Front, he flashes forward to Montana on Tralfamadore, but on his return he tells Lazzaro he was thinking of his “girl”. It may not be a wholly invented memory: later, Pilgrim tells enlisted ex-teacher Edgar Derby of a “nobody special” back home. Is it simply that unrelated memories, including one of an invented experience, are being conflated?
Any evidence in support of Pilgrim’s ‘time out of joint’ claim would come in the form of remembered future events. The first ‘premonition’ to appear in the film’s version of Billy’s (linear) chronology occurs immediately prior to his being led to the plane whose crash he is destined to survive. He sees a flash of the skiers who rescue him from the snowed wreckage, and he is immediately able to interpret this vision.
But that’s still set earlier in his life than his letter-writing, so it has the potential to be another memory. However, Geller chooses his moment carefully. The direct consequence of the accident is that Pilgrim undergoes some unspecified cranial surgery. (Vonnegut, afforded the opportunity to embellish through prose, leaves him with “a terrible scar across the top of his skull”.) A reasonable conclusion to draw is that the experience is too much for Pilgrim’s mind, which henceforth starts its merry dance.
The circumstances surrounding the accident represent the only time Geller and Hill fail to maintain Billy’s point of view. This is odd for either paradigm; if we’re following Billy through his fractures, we should be with him, even more so if those fractures are in his mind. Instead, we are granted this excursion away from his lack of consciousness to witness the fate of his wife, Valencia, who is so stricken with emotion on hearing of her husband’s rescue that she drives recklessly to her death in an effort to reach the hospital.
Until now, Hill has captured Vonnegut’s ‘so absurd it’s almost plausible’ style of humour – of the sort that considers “Tralfamadorian” to be a perfectly reasonable name for an extraterrestrial species – with great success. Yet he transforms Valencia’s maniacal driving, an unseen footnote in Vonnegut, into a slapstick demolition derby. Billy regularly sees his wife in an unflattering light, a stuck record about her weight loss plans (which she is prone to mentioning out of the blue), and evidently as far less important to him than Montana or even his dog Spot. Significantly, though Billy’s journey through his life appears to be entirely random, we will never see his wife alive again after this visit to this moment. He has written her out of existence, and Hill (or, through him, Billy?) has indulged his Valencia this humiliating spectacle of a demise.
Tralfamadore and Pilgrim’s own death are equally fantasised. Vonnegut has Billy admire the novels of regular alter ego Kilgore Trout, described in the novel as prolific but deeply unpopular, the kind of author whose ideas are terrific but whose execution leaves much to be desired. Hill’s Tralfamadore is a good match: a world whose inhabitants experience space-time in a wholly alien way, yet which appears to be a slag-heap in space with a quaint little pressure dome for Billy’s survival. Visible in the (perpetual) night sky is a planet not unlike Jupiter, of which Tralfamadore – described as a planet in another solar system – appears to be a moon.
Naturally, all the Tralfamadorians are interested in is to study human mating habits, so Montana Wildhack, star of a third rate Caligula clone Billy caught at the drive-in and after whom he lusts, is abducted for Billy’s pleasure. That she materialises (un)dressed in much the same attire she was barely wearing in her film reinforces the view that this is an imagined experience, this being how Billy remembers her.
Billy knows – has always known, will always know – the circumstances of his death and the identity of his killer. Paul Lazzaro, a borderline psychopath who swears vengeance on Billy in retribution for the death of Roland Weary, is painted as the assassin. Hill’s depiction of the killer functions similarly to the abduction of Montana. Lazzaro appears in clothes that resemble his army fatigues from World War II, and the ageing makeup applied to actor Ron Leibman as Lazzaro is a pale shadow of the excellent effect applied to Michael Sacks (Pilgrim). If anything, Lazzaro resembles a poorly aged extrapolation of how he appeared in the 1940s – the last time he and Billy saw each other.
Most damning of all is the fact that Billy never sees his assailant in this moment, though we do. Assuming at the very least a subjective awareness on Pilgrim’s part of the events of his own life, how can he possibly know who commits the act?
Other transformations of Lazzaro’s part in the narrative enhance the subjective slant Geller applies. Lazzaro is introduced earlier in the film, here a figure known by Billy prior to Weary’s demise. That death, too, now takes place in Billy’s presence, making the subsequent conflict between him and Lazzaro more direct, applying the ‘show don’t tell’ maxim of screenwriting. But it also makes Weary’s death a part of Billy’s life, an event that can continue to live as a memory.
Next time @ vikileaks: So Vonnegut’s Novel Goes