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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Slaughterhouse Five

The second "sci-fi" film of 1972 was also a Universal production. Slaughterhouse Five (SF) was based on Kurt Vonnegut Jr's novel of the same name. In several ways, SF is not much of a science fiction story, since Pilgrim's time travel "just happens" with no science-y cause. The fact that there are some unseen aliens and Pilgrim living on another planet (for awhile), and the notion of time travel per se, are peripheral reasons, SF gets included on sci-fi movie lists. Michael Sacks stars as Billy Pilgrim. Other recognizable stars play supporting roles. Valerie Perinne, in her first feature film, dominates the supporting cast (nudity will do that) as Montana Wildhack. Universal invested pretty heavily in SF. The production cost was over three times what they put into Silent Running.

 Quick Plot Synopsis
Note: SF is the story of the life of Billy Pilgrim. In the film, as in the novel, there is much skipping backwards and forwards along his timeline. Following this scene by scene would be far too long, So, for brevity, some reassembly is done.
The story opens to young Billy in WWII, a chaplain's assistant, lost and separated from his unit during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944. Billy and two other G.I.s are captured by the Germans. En route to a prison camp, one of the G.I.s dies of frostbite. The other, a psychotic named Paul Lazzaro, vows to avenge his friend's death by someday killing Billy. In the camp, Billy makes friends with Edgar Derby, a nice, if somewhat mediocre man. Some of the prisoners are transferred to a work detail in Dresden. They're happy at this, as Dresden has no military targets. They are housed in a former slaughterhouse, number five. ("Schlacthof 5") After awhile, in mid February, air raid sirens wail. The soldiers and guards shelter in a deep cellar. When they emerge, Dresden is a smoldering ruin. While working to retrieve the dead, Derby finds a little porcelain statue. He is shot as a looter.
After the war, Billy becomes an optometrist. He marries a plump daughter of a wealthy man. They have a two kids: Robert, who becomes a troubled-youth, and Barbara. While on a charter flight to an optometrist convention, Billy knows the plane will crash, but no one believes him. It does. He is the sole survivor. His wife dies of carbon monoxide poisoning while driving her car recklessly to the hospital to see him. Billy goes into a malaise period, comforted only by his old dog, Spot. Robert cleans up to become a Green Beret sergeant. Billy and Spot are transported to a geodetic dome on the planet Tralfamadore, where the Tralfamadorians (who live in the 4th dimension and are only disembodied voices) keep him like a zoo animal. They also abduct a soft-porn star, Montana Wildhack to be his mate. Billy tries to tell people back home about Tralfamadore, but Barbara only think he's nuts. Her husband Stanley isn't so sure, since he heard about an actress named Montana Wildhack gone missing. Billy knows the time of his death. In the future, he will be shot by an old Paul Lazzaro, while giving a lecture about Tralfamadore. He and Montana have a son. The Tralfamadorias applaud. Billy and Montana wave. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Such a disjointed non-linear story could be confusing and/or annoying, but director George Ray Hill manages to make the transitions almost logical, as the old and new scenes have some common feature. The story itself has some power, though not particularly "fun." (war, mortality, etc.)

Cultural Connection
SR was well received by film critics, winning several awards. It was not as well received by the ticket-buying public, however. The abundant foul language in the beginning, and full-upper nudity by Valerie Parinne, made SF a bit hard-edged for mainstream audiences. The fragmentary jumble of the story was also not well received by the general public either.

Based on the Book -- Much has already been written (and easily available in the internet) about Vonnegut's 1969 novel. SF was a fairly close adaptation of the book. A couple characters were omitted and some literary devices not used, but Vonnegut himself was pleased with the film. The war segments are partially autobiographical, as Vonnegut himself was a POW, housed in a former slaughterhouse in Dresden during the infamous firebombing.

Unstuck In Time -- To dramatize Billy Pilgrim's being "unstuck in time," his life story is told in intermixed fragments. Most are of his WWIi experiences with his post-war life woven in. It amounts to a heavy use of the literary device of flashback, and one flashforward, from the vantage point of his life on Tralfamadore. The flashbacks -- in the war, to pre-war, to post-war, to back in the war, etc. etc. -- are usually connected by some shared event. Billy falling down. Billy waking up, Being lectured to, etc. much as how people's memories can be triggered by some present stimulus.

Counter-Bunyan -- By choice of the name: Billy Pilgrim, calls to mind John Bunyan's famous work, "Pilgrim's Progress". Vonnegut's Pilgrim somewhat similar, in that his life is presented as a series of events -- tests -- which begin to define him. Unlike Bunyan's Pilgrim, Vonnegut's Pilgrim does not progress towards a goal of finding God, so much as he becomes "enlightened" to a hybrid Zen-Calvinist-Quietist existentialism. There is evil, but "so it goes."

Scar of Dresden -- The fire bombing of Dresden holds center stage in SF, almost the glue that holds the story together. Pilgrim's pre-war life and post-war life segments jump around, but the Dresden thread remains linear. This event is every historical (for readers unfamiliar with WWII history). On the night of February 13th, 1945, British and American bombers dropped tons of explosive bombs and incendiary bombs on the center of Dresden. The Allies were embarrassingly successful. The resulting fire and destruction killed roughly 25,000 people, some by burning to death, but many by suffocation as the fire storm sucked all the oxygen from the air. For years afterward, (and even still today) the bombing of Dresden is debated. Was it a justified act of war, or an unjustified brutality of war? Vonnegut's story seems to preach the latter (loudly and often). Undercutting this, however, is the existentialism that Pilgrim learns. Things just are. Good and bad happen without value. As the Tralfamadorians say, you can't prevent the bad, so just concentrate on the good and try to overlook the bad. Perhaps this was Vonnegut's own coping mechanism, set in story form.

Adolescent Fantasy -- A foil to all the death and destruction of Pilgrim's past, and the crushing mediocrity of his present, is the adolescent (and old man) fantasy escapism of his future. He gets to live alone, free from all those nagging demands of the real world (an imperfect wife, troubled children, a dull career, etc.). He gets to live alone in an all-expenses-paid bachelor pad with no obligations. To complete the fantasy, he gets a young soft-porn actress as his perpetual playmate. (Life imitating art: Perinne was featured in Playboy magazine in May of '72) She (Montana) is the adolescent male dream -- pretty, buxom, libidinous and not too deep, mentally -- whose only goal in life appears to be to please him. This, then, becomes Pilgrim's coping mechanism for the horrors of war and the tedium of reality. War is hell, yes, but he'll have his bimbo afterward. Suburbia is hell, yes, but eventually, he'll get his bimbo. This might help Pilgrim cope, but his case is of no comfort to the rest of linear humanity (who survive war, and mediocrity) who don't get a bimbo in their old age (or stud muffin for the ladies).

Bottom line? It can be argued that SF is not really a sci-fi film, but rather, a war film, a fantasy film, a social satire, whatever. Yet, it gets onto sci-fi film lists. Perhaps having some aliens and time travel are enough to qualify. The non-linearity of the story keeps SF from being an easy-viewing popcorn film. Viewers who prefer simpler story lines may find SF too jumbled and confusing to the point of annoyance. Yet, for the more determined viewer, there is much in SF to muse over.


Randall Landers said...

You know, I've never seen this film, perhaps because I never cared for the novel. Maybe I should put it on the to-view list.

CavedogRob said...

One of my favorite novels of all time! Pretty "unfilmable" in my opinion but they do a good if disappointing job. Hill gets an "A" for effort. At least he seemed to have some grasped of the material unlike the later version of "Breakfast of Champions" where the makers seemed to be totally baffled!