Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) is an ordinary World War II soldier with one major exception: he has mysteriously become unstuck in time. Billy goes on an uncontrollable trip back and forth from his birth in New York to life on a distant planet and back again to the horrors of the 1945 fire-bombing of Dresden. This dazzling and thought-provoking drama co-stars Ron Leibman and Valerie Perrine.
eyelights: the core concept of being unstuck in time. the spouse’s vehicular rampage.
eyesores: the film’s construction. Billy Pilgrim’s drab life.
All this happened, more or less. Many years ago, I watched ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’. I promptly forgot about it. Offered the chance to see it again, the notion that I’d seen it before tickled my brain. But I couldn’t for the life of me dig up one clear memory of this supposed experience. It’s as though it had never happened.
But I had the vague impression that I’d been there, done that. And so it goes that I decided to give it another chance, knowing full well that it was likely I had forgotten my viewing because it had underwhelmed me so, that it had bored my brain into a complacent state that refused to retain anything.
As I watched the movie, some of it seemed familiar. No vivid recollections came to me, but I had an impression similar to seeing a face that you’re pretty sure you’ve seen before but not quite being able to place it: you feel like you know it, but where and when had you seen it before? Should you remember it, or is it unimportant, really?
You’d think a movie called ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ would inspire all sorts of memories. With a name like that, I would certainly expect it and wish it to. Even its premise, that of a man unstuck in time, floating in and out of his life at random, should naturally provide me with all sorts of unforgettable moments.
Alas, it didn’t.
If anything, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ plays out as a severely disjointed affair that doesn’t effectively relate its protagonist’s inability to live life in a linear way. What it comes off as is a pastiche of flashbacks of life, disparately thrown together, with no cues that he is actually living these moments in time, instead of recollecting them as flashbacks.
This effectively ruins the story’s central conceit, and the true impetus for watching the film, which is that his experience of life is in constant flux, that he is forever transported from one moment in time to the next. And so it goes that, without a clear understanding of the impact that this has on the character, we can merely watch this as a collection of vignettes.
One the major problems, of course, is that the film assumes that audiences will be familiar with Kurt Vonnegut’s book. The synopsis alone suggests a very different type of story than what is seen on screen. I remember clearly getting the impression that our hero, Billy Pilgrim, would be jumping in and out of time. I expected a thrilling, involuntary back-and-forth to the future.
What I got, instead, was a tepid drama with a twist of sci-fi for taste.
It didn’t help that most of Pilgrim’s life is terminally dull. This is a regular guy, with a regular life, and very little personality on display. The most exciting part of his life’s story is his time in Germany during dubya dubya eye eye. But I find war stories incredibly tedious, dismal as the setting is. Sadly, a large part of the picture is devoted to this part of his life.
Of course, if the character was even remotely interesting, that would have been a good start. Had he been fascinating, it would have overcome the tedium of his life. But he’s not – he flavourless. And to make matters worse, even though we follow him for decades on end, he barely ages; his hairline recedes, but he looks and sounds the same at 20 and at 50. Most annoying.
The only thing I really enjoyed (aside from the mild nudity – the only thing that elicited a recall, actually), was Pilgrim’s spouse’s reaction to his plane accident, which was hilarious: she ran to her Cadillac and literally tore through town to get to the hospital, hitting everything on her way and rampaging her way up hills, in the wrong direction and into the hospital. Literally.
While I found the spouse irritating to no end, the absurdity of this sequence made me laugh like mad; I couldn’t believe just how crazy that car ride was – it was about as ridiculous as the chase at the end of ‘The Blues Brothers’, except with only one car this time. Frankly, it has to be seen to be believed. Well, actually, it should just be seen – as a short, it’s brilliant.
But, beyond this I can’t seem to make much of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’. Even now, armed with a wider appreciation of cinema in general, this motion picture leaves my brain numb and unreceptive. Something made the original novel so fascinating that it’s considered a classic but, seeing this picture, I can’t fathom what it is. It apparently made Vonnegut chuckle to see it transposed to the silver screen, but to me it was a waste of time.
Date of viewing: June 4, 2013