Sunday, October 13, 2013

So It Goes

Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, though easy reads, are notoriously difficult to translate into film. The only attempt Kurt himself thought successful was Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), though the plot is the most nonlinear of any of his books. Critics agreed with Kurt, but audiences did not: the film won the Prix de Jury, Hugo, and Saturn awards, but flopped at the box office.

The plot: Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck in time” and randomly relives different parts of his life in non-sequential order. One moment he is in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge where he is captured by Germans, the next he is reliving his wedding night, the next he is a child, the next he is being abducted by aliens, the next he is at a party of fellow optometrists, the next he is a POW in Dresden during the Allied firebombing, the next he is on the alien planet Tralfamadore with fellow abductee and porn star Montana Wildhack, and so on. Despite reliving the episodes over and over, he can change nothing. He relives them as a passive observer because the past, present and future must exist only as they are. As the Tralfamadoreans (who can see all time at once rather than merely one single moment of it) tell Billy, “that is the way things are structured.” Though a person may be suffering or dead at particular moment in time, he is perfectly well and happy in other moments – and all moments exist simultaneously. Time is an illusion created by the limitations of human senses, they tell him; humans cannot see beyond the moment just as they cannot see beyond a limited spectrum of light. The broader spectrum nonetheless is there. “Just concentrate on the good parts,” is their advice.

This fatalistic philosophy is comforting to Billy. He, like the Tralfamadoreans (who, Billy’s daughter believes, are a figment of Billy’s mentally unbalanced imagination), is able to deal with horrible events with the phrase, “So it goes,” because he knows that things are hunky-dory somewhen else. The phrase “So it goes” occurs 116 times in the novel according to one critic – I’ll take his word for it. (Vonnegut, by the way, was a POW in Dresden in 1945, and witnessed the firebombing.)

All this was hard enough to bring to a screen, so the idea of bringing it to a small off-Broadway stage with a minimal set seemed to me utterly preposterous. Yet, that is what the International Fringe Festival did at The Players Theater in Greenwich Village. They pulled it off, too, once again showing that a good script can overcome almost any other limitation. (Yes, good actors help as well, but they can do nothing without the script.)

So far, so good. The play and the company of three friends made for a pleasant evening – until I left the garage at 8th Street and discovered my Jeep Cherokee no longer had power steering – except to the degree I supplied the power. It still was possible to wrestle the machine home, I figured, but by the time I reached 7th Avenue, the engine temperature gauge needle had slammed to the right. (The mechanically inclined among the readers might be saying, “It’s the belt!” Almost right: the belt was intact, but one of the parts which should be turned by it was not.) As you can imagine, getting a vehicle off the streets of NYC and out to a far suburb on a Saturday night is neither simple nor cheap. The play ended at 9:30 PM. I got home at 3:30 AM, hundreds of dollars poorer. So it goes.

A close examination of the Jeep reveals enough problems to conclude that it has reached the end of its useful life – the cost of repairs would exceed its value by far. So it goes. Until last night the Jeep had served long and well. Somewhen else, I’m enjoying those pleasant times and a quasi-niece (that designation is a long story) is learning to drive in it. Tomorrow, all those Columbus Day auto sales will be of some use.

As for last night, I just concentrate on the good parts.

Trailer Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)



  1. I've seen this film pop up on a couple of folks favorite sci-fi flick lists. I'm curious about but I've never read any of of Vonnegut's stuff. Should I go with the book first and then follow it up with the movie?

    1. Going into the movie without being prepped with at least as much of an intro as I gave it above would be confusing, to say the least. But, so long as you're aware of the "unstuck in time" device and of the deterministic philosophy underlying it, reading the book isn't really necessary.

      That said, Slaughterhouse-Five (the novel) is a good read, and, like all of Vonnegut, a quick and easy read, too -- if a little off-beat. You can finish it in one evening if you don't have distractions. Reading it will add some richness to the movie experience.