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DOC TALK

Doc Talk: Vonnegut revealed, Attica revisited, healing sought

A scene from "Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time."Courtesy of C. Minnick and B Plus Pro

Robert B. Weide, like Billy Pilgrim in “Slaughterhouse-Five” (1969), is unstuck in time.

He’s also stuck in a project. He began the mind-teasing, tear-jerking “Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time” back in 1982 when he wrote a letter to the author (who died in 2007, at 84) asking if he’d be interested in participating in a documentary about him. To Weide’s surprise, Vonnegut agreed.

Then followed an increasingly obsessive attempt to capture the subject on film. While Weide’s own career prospered, with documentaries on W.C. Fields, the late Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Woody Allen, as well as with the HBO comedy series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” he was also immersed in the material Vonnegut kept providing. Boxes of VHS tapes, manuscripts, drawings, and other artifacts filled his garage. Along the way, Weide also developed an intense friendship with Vonnegut, which perhaps is what the film is really about.

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Vonnegut’s writing emerged from trauma: the Depression, his mother’s suicide, the death of a beloved sister, and the central horror of his life and the subject of his breakthrough 1969 bestseller, “Slaughterhouse-Five” — the fire-bombing of Dresden by Allied planes in 1945, which incinerated 25,000 civilians (130,000 according to Vonnegut) and leveled the city.

Filmmaker Robert B. Weide, left, and Kurt Vonnegut in "Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time."Courtesy of B Plus Prods./C. Minnick. An IFC Films Release.

Vonnegut was there, a POW sheltered in the slaughterhouse meat locker of the title. With his fellow prisoners, including his fictitious protagonist Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut participated in the cleanup, searching for and piling up the former human beings reduced to “little logs” and excavating “corpse mines” for those still intact enough to decompose. The stench he describes as like “mustard gas and roses.” Every atrocity is answered by the phrase “so it goes,” which has become the mantra of baby boomer fans of the book ever since.

Time as seen in Vonnegut’s work is not chronological, but spasmodic, darting from one fixed, horrible memory to another, with distancing attempted with irony and meta-fictional reflexivity. Weide’s film emulates that structure. He mixes home movies, four decades of interviews with Vonnegut and family members, talk show appearances, clips from George Roy Hill’s 1972 adaptation of “Slaughter-House Five” and Keith Gordon’s 1996 adaptation of Vonnegut’s 1962 novel “Mother Night,” Weide’s own self-analysis, and other material. The result is a fugue of sardonic comedy, occasional sentimentality, and ineluctable horror.

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“Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time” is available for streaming starting Nov. 19, on various platforms, including Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, and Vudu. Go to vonnegutdocumentary.com.

From "Attica."Showtime

Another slaughterhouse

While Billy Pilgrim can’t forget the nightmare of the Dresden bombing some Americans have a short memory when it comes to the atrocities committed in our own country.

As recounted in Stanley Nelson’s wrenching, infuriating documentary “Attica” (featured last month in this year’s GlobeDocs Festival) more than 1,200 inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York rebelled on Sept. 9, 1971, against the prison’s inhumane conditions. They took 39 guards hostage and issued a list of demands, including amnesty for those who took part in the revolt. The siege went on for four days, covered by international media inside and outside the prison, as officials and others tried to negotiate a resolution.

Finally, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a moderate Republican canny and opportunistic enough to push President Richard Nixon’s popular “law and order” platform (“Are these primarily Blacks that you’re dealing with?” Nixon asks Rockefeller in a recorded phone call) ordered the prison retaken. In the resulting onslaught nine hostages and 29 prisoners were killed. Rockefeller at first stated that the prisoners had killed the hostages, but subsequent investigations revealed that the victims had been shot by the police.

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Nelson interviews survivors of the massacre, and their tales are shocking. They are backed up by footage: the images of the police attack, which witnesses report had the fervor of a lynch mob, horrify. But no more than those of the aftermath. Nelson includes footage of scores of naked prisoners forced to crawl through broken glass. They are forced to run a gantlet of guards and police who beat them with clubs and shower them with racist epithets.

Perhaps this film might be shown in classrooms and to those who object to Critical Race Theory.

“Attica” can be streamed on Showtime. Go to www.sho.com/titles/3472216/attica.

From "Procession."Netflix © 2021

The things they still carry

In his 2017 documentary, “Bisbee ‘17,” Robert Greene shows how the residents of the title Arizona border town performed a reenactment to deal with the memory of the deportation of 1,200 immigrant miners that happened a century before. The unresolved traumas in his new film, “Procession” are more recent and excruciatingly personal.

His subjects are six middle-aged men in Missouri who were sexually assaulted by priests when they were children. None has found justice, let alone peace of mind — one case is still being litigated, the abuser of another survivor is still at large, and in other cases the perpetrators are dead. But the indifference, inaction, and denials of the church hierarchy enrage them most of all.

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All want to purge themselves of this recurrent agony somehow. As one of the survivors puts it, “Spotlight,” the 2015 film about The Boston Globe’s exposé of the Boston archdiocese’s molestation scandal, “was about trying to get in from the outside. In our film, we’re trying to get out.”

Together with a lawyer and a drama therapist Greene engages the men in re-creating the scenarios of their violation, in some cases with the survivors playing the part of the perpetrators. Like Werner Herzog in his documentaries “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” (1997) and “Wings of Hope” (1999), Greene also has the survivors track down the places where they were traumatized. In the course of this attempted sublimation, the rawest emotions erupt — anger, terror, shame, and despair. It’s not easy to watch — as much for the healing that eludes them as for the outrages they suffered.

Go to www.netflix.com.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.