DVD Review of Slaughterhouse-Five
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/13/12
Sometimes luck is better than skill, as the apothegm bemoans. Film director George Roy Hill likely would have agreed with this sentiment, given the arc of his career. Hill was basically a journeyman director of television who got a lucky break into the film industry, then mined a decent career in that field, despite, at best, yeoman’s level work, in terms of visuals, narrative, and overall directorial skill with actors and scripts. Now, years after his death, his name is best recalled for films like 1982’s The World According To Garp, 1973’s The Sting, or 1969’s Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. But, while those films garnered acclaim and popular appeal, none of them were innovatory, nor daring as overall works of fiction. The same cannot be said of Hill’s best film: 1972’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
This much underrated 103 minute long film is not just his best film, it is easily his best film. Why? Because it comes from the best source material: Kurt Vonnegut’s great novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade. As many directors of note have claimed, all great cinema starts with a good script. Period. Cinema is a visual extension of literature, rather than a narrative extension of the visual arts. This good (not common) sense reality has too often missed by fundamentalists of ‘pure cinema,’ but it is true, nonetheless. And cinemature has rarely been as well adapted from one medium into another than in this film. Even Vonnegut stated that the film was almost as perfect a rendition of his novel in film as he could imagine. Given the fact of how so many authors constantly and consistently bemoan the adaptations of their works into other media (rightly or wrongly), this says something of value.
But, it also explains why this film is so much better than Hill’s other films. It is heavily dependent upon the novel not only for the narrative, but for its structural hardiness. While the novel is definitely a great work of art, the film just misses out on such, due to rather pedestrian visuals, and some subpar acting from supporting character roles. One advantage, however, that the film has over the novel is that the film more clearly expresses how utterly insane the lead character, Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) is. In flat words on a piece of paper, the character and situations are almost totally dependent upon the ability of the reader to process information. No matter how great the offering from the artist, there is an undeniable dependence upon the intelligence of the reader that is simply not needed in a visual medium. Why? Because images rivet into the viewer at the speed of light and can subliminally manipulate the percipient in ways even the greatest words cannot. After all, written language has been around for only about 6 eons, whereas the development of the eye, in the animal kingdom, goes back about 600 million years. You do the math, and think about what a head start the visual arts have had on the written arts in terms of being able to affect an audience.
In the book, narrated by a fictive version of Vonnegut, himself, it’s
not so clear whether or not he believes Pilgrim is insane. But, the film, by
virtue of the silliness of his views, and the demented (or retarded) looks on
Sacks’ face, leaves little question as to Pilgrim’s lack of a grip on
reality. He believes in supernatural things, has shifts of sense between eras in
his life, believes he is a captive of aliens that force him to copulate with a
porno star, Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine), ends up becoming the leader of a
UFO cult, and, despite the film’s best intentions, also seems to deliberately
distort his own past. After all, the whole scenario with psycho Paul Lazzaro
(Ron Leibman) seems to smack of self-servingness. Not that there are not people
like that in real life, and Leibman is fantastic in a pre-Pesci Joe Pesci type
role, but Pilgrim’s whole narrative reveals a paranoia in regards to what
could be seen as a ‘persecution complex.’ Witness the scene after his wife
dies, when he is the lone survivor of an airplane crash. He overhears his
hospital roommate talking about writing a book about the firebombing of Dresden
(which the film shows through the use of black and white newsreel footage), and,
if that is not too coincidental, the other man is openly hostile and disdainful
to Pilgrim. Why? Yes, one can accept this as a condensation of a life, but why
would Pilgrim focus only on the repeated disses he receives in life? He also is,
curiously, not captured by the Tralfamadoreans, for their zoo, until after his
wife has died. Clearly, Pilgrim would not let his mind indulge such fantasies
with a porno star until he was ‘free.’ This is clearly a representation of
‘wish fulfillment,’ not any inner diegetic ‘reality’ that Pilgrim
The rest of the tale, as well, has to be colored by what we not only feel, but ‘see’ is clearly an unreliable narrator. Pilgrim resides in Ilium, New York- the fictive locale of many Vonnegut tales. Other Vonnegut characters from other works, also appear in minor roles in this book, most notable Eliot Rosewater. Pilgrim bounces about in time, with three major ‘destinations’: his past World War Two prisoner of war experiences before, during, and after the February 13th, 1945 firebombing of Dresden, his future life as a prisoner on the planet of Tralfamadore, and his ongoing life as an optometrist and prisoner in a marriage to a fat woman, Valencia (Sharon Gans) he may have ‘loved,’ but never been ‘in love’ with.
Some of the best moments in the film come in scenes between Pilgrim and his older POW mentor, Edgar Derby (brilliantly played by Eugene Roche as an over-optimistic middle American). Derby protects Pilgrim from Lazzaro’s rages, but we also see him subtly demeaned when he becomes the American POW spokesman to the Nazis (by both friend and foe). We see his purity of spirit when he confronts an American Nazi sympathizer, Howard Campbell- another recurring Vonnegut character from other works. We see his almost comic ebullience when he tells Pilgrim: ‘We didn't mince phraseologies at Boston Trades And Industrial;’ his pre-war place of employment, as a teacher. We see the love he has for his family, and his sentimentality, which becomes his undoing, after he finds and pockets a porcelain doll resembling one which was broken in his family home, after the bombing, during cleanup detail in which the POWs were all told not to loot. He is summarily executed by firing squad, and, while this gets greater emotional time in the novel, it also is clearly the axis upon which Pilgrim’s life turned. All the scenes that come later in Pilgrim’s life (be they chronologically shown before or after this ‘moment,’ reveal a more bitter, cynical, and exteriorized Pilgrim. He simply is not the same person, and sacks conveys this with great subtlety, in small lilts of facial features, and in bodily postures. It’s something that many critics have missed, for while Pilgrim is clearly insane through most of the film (perhaps owing to a boyhood trauma of being tossed naked into a pool and told to sink or swim by his father- speak of betrayals!) that has nothing to do with his world-weariness and cynicism; although it may have much to do with his increasing flights of fancy.
The film, despite its wide swaths cut through time and space, is anything but epic (although the scenes of a post-firebombed Dresden are spectacular); it is, instead, one of the best character portraits ever put on film. And it is the performance of Sacks, as the eternal naïf, which so well masques his character’s insanity. Kurt Vonnegut is rightly called a humorist (or, more accurately, a satirist), but too often he is labeled as a science fiction writer. And while it’s true that there are some sci fi elements in much of his work, from Player Piano through Galapagos, the fact is that Vonnegut always uses these devices in absurdist ways, to heighten the satire, not to portray a real world according to some new science fictional dictates. In Slaughterhouse-Five, the sci fi elements (the time tripping and life on Tralfamadore, etc.) are all in service to not only the humor of the work, but more importantly to display the insanity of the lead character. If Vonnegut were so interested in science, he would not have claimed Tralfamadore as being a ‘mere’ 423 billion miles from earth, as the closest star to the sun is over 4 light years- or 40 trillion miles- away (about a hundred times farther than Tralfamadore’s place in the cosmos). How easily Vonnegut’s oeuvre has been misread is nothing but a testament to how effective a literary sleight of hand artist he was.
The DVD, put out by Universal Films, is a no frill sort, which is a shame because a good commentary track, from a Vonnegut expert, or a 1970s film expert, could really go a long way in not only contextualizing this work in its era, as well as place in the Vonnegut canon, but it could also signify the cinematic value of the film, for its own sake. Near-great films absolutely deserve commentary tracks. If every crappy new big budget release from Hollywood gets one, then surely this film deserves one, as well. There is only a theatrical trailer of the film included. The film is shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and it’s a very good transfer- quite free of scratches and marks. The cinematography, by Miroslav Ondricek, is solid but not spectacular, and the adapted screenplay, by Stephen Geller, makes some nice elisions, as well as adding some things that help condense other aspects of the novel to film, without losing the signature Vonnegutian touch- likely the reason Vonnegut praised the film so highly. Lastly, the soundtrack, by Glenn Gould, is pitch perfect. Oftenm the film goes through long stretches with no scoring, and then there are scenes of wonder where the music dominates- such as the scenes where Pilgrim sees the Tralfamadorean UFO that eventually captures him. The scenes are punctuated by several piano pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach that, like the splendid use of Erik Satie’s Gymnopaedie #3 in both Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre and Woody Allen’s Another Woman. The most resonant of these is Bach’s Keyboard Concerto, No. 5, In F Minor (Largo).
While the film falls shy of greatness, it certainly did deserve the awards it won, such as the Prix de Jury (3rd Place) at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival. And, given how many films from the 1960s and 1970s have been pigeon-holed, due to their cultural limitations, it’s refreshing to see a film that reflects its era- the 1940s through 1970s, yet does not wallow in it. While one can argue with the film’s philosophical posit that everything is connected and predetermined, the presentation, or the art, of the ideas, is excellent. On a personal level, one of the things I find most refreshing about this film is how there is not a single character in it that looks like a movie star. All the main and supporting character roles are played by average looking actors. I sometimes just get tired of looking at films where, even if good acting is involved (such as the films of a Michelangelo Antonioni or Federico Fellini, much less the schlock that Hollywood cranks out), the people all look like perfect mannekins. Another refreshing thing about this film is that it’s one of the rare examples of a film (especially considering it was a big studio Hollywood film) set in World War Two era Europe that has nothing to do with the Nazi genocide of European Jews. It’s simply next to impossible to make a film on the Holocaust that does not fall into terminal PC preachiness. This film, however, shows the war from a unique perspective; one where humor and the flaws of individuals are on full display, rather than the stridency of a political ax to grind.
Slaughterhouse-Five may or may not be a great film (I vote no), but it is a film worth watching. While it does not break as much ground in its art form as its source material does in its, it is a film that sticks with the viewer, forcing one to cogitate upon what it has imparted, Whether or not that means one is time tripping like Billy Pilgrim is up for debate.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Spinning Image website.]
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