Monday 20 August 2007

Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) George Roy Hill

It's been a little while since I read Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, but it impressed me and I wonder how it could be filmed. It's one of the least categorisable stories I know. It's a time travel, space travel science fiction story, but it's also a war film and a drama and a comedy and a satire and pretty much any other genre you can come up with. It's about the firebombing in Dresden but more than anything it's an exploration of human nature in the face of absurdity.

Billy Pilgrim is the hero, in as much as there is such a thing. We first meet him as he composes a letter to the Ilium, that details how he keeps slipping through time. He leaps back and forth and here and there without any control over the process. One minute he's home in a huge house writing his letter, the next he's behind enemy lines in the Second World War and then he's on the planet Tralfamadore with Valerie Perrine in a skimpy negligee. You can imagine the problems hop, skip and jumping from one to the next.

There's an interesting cast: Dr Stephen Falken from Wargames, Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard, even Queequeg from Moby Dick who I seem to be seeing in everything nowadays. Michael Sacks is the lead and he's excellent, seeming both believable yet completely out of place wherever he happens to be at the time. He reminds a little of William Hurt but as even more of an everyman. Ron Leibman excels as an obnoxious American soldier called Paul Lazzaro and he gets the most memorable lines, with the possible exception of Sharon Gans as Billy's wife Valencia promising to lose weight every time she's happy.

Most memorable of all though are the scenarios that Vonnegut conjures up: Billy's wife driving the wrong way through a group of Hell's Angels, the Brits welcoming the American prisoners of war, Billy's family reacting to Valerie Perrine stripping on screen at a drive in, the night canopy, the grandfather clock, the little statue. And yet, after all the absurd situations the inevitable one we constantly build towards is the firebombing of Dresden. Like Pilgrim talking to Wild Bob Cody, who was writing his own biased history of the event, Vonnegut was there and knew exactly what it was like.

It was his use of the event in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five that made many people aware of it and raised the discussion of it as a war crime. I certainly feel that while nobody's ever going to convince people that Auschwitz or Belsen was good ideas, people looking back from the perspectives of a few hundred years in the future aren't going to look too kindly on Dresden or Hiroshima (or Coventry) either. Then again, Vonnegut explores the Tralfamadorian concept of fatalism, where all time exists at once and we can revisit any point whenever we want to. Suddenly life and death are merely points in time.

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