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1 review, 13 user ratings

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by WilliamPrice

"A reasonably faithful adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.ís unique novel"
3 stars

This thought-provoking film centers on the life of Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks), an American POW in World War Two who witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden. For reasons unknown, he becomes ďunstuck in timeĒ, and is forced to live the events of his life in random order. The result is a fractured tale, where his wartime experiences, his later life as a suburban optometrist and his eventual visit to the planet Tralfamadore intermix in arbitrary fashion to express an ironic but meaningful view of life.

The engaging story is told with excellent attention to the characters and situations of the original novel. Not your typical hero, Billy Pilgrim is more of a bystander, to whom life relentlessly happens. He endures the ups and downs of his experiences with a kind of passive bewilderment, never quite in control, never quite sure of how life is affecting him. Michael Sacks captures the essence of the role perfectly, whether appearing good-natured and clueless as a young draftee, or exuding a fumbling naÔvetť as a dorky optometrist in his later years.

At the POW camp, Billy is befriended by a well-meaning middle-aged schoolteacher named Edgar Derby (Eugene Roche), who protects him from his nemesis, the hateful, greasy punk Paul Lazzaro (Ron Leibman). Both characters are impressively accurate to Vonnegutís description, although in the film their roles have been expanded considerably.

The same can also be said of his post-war bride Valencia (Sharon Gans), the chubby, twittering daughter of a rich optometrist with whom Billy raises a family in a seeming haze of mindless amenability.

In the wake of his wifeís tragic death, Billy finds himself transported to the planet Tralfamadore where he is kept in a kind of zoo for the edification of curious Tralfamadorians, aliens who live in the fourth dimension. His boredom is considerably relieved with the arrival of a second Earthling, a topless movie star! Her name is Montana Wildhack (played very prettily by Valerie Perrine), and she has been brought to Tralfamadore to provide Billy with a mate. It seems life isnít all bad.

As good as the film Slaughterhouse-Five is, it isnít fully up to the challenge of transposing Vonnegutís complex and delicate masterwork. Although the screenplay remains agreeably close to the physical story of Billy Pilgrim, the time-tripping aspect has been substantially compromised. The time-jumps we are shown have a well-defined logic to them, in stark contrast to those in the book, which take place apropos of nothing.

For example, when Billy is being photographed by the Germans, this is inter-cut with another photo session taking place 20 years later at an optometry convention. There is a definite relationship between the two events. Now in the book, when Billy is being photographed, he time trips to 1967 where is heís driving his Cadillac. The juxtaposition of two completely disjoint events underscores Billyís powerlessness and conjures a unique sense of irony that is one of the novelís defining features.

In the film, after his wifeís death, Billy carries his dog Spot up the stairs of his empty house. This is cross-cut with the POWs climbing the stairs of the bunker to view the devastation of Dresden. Itís quite effective dramatically. But these kinds of deliberate parallels are strictly avoided in the time-trips of the novel.

What Geller has done here is to tell the Dresden story in a straightforward manner, intermittently cutting forward in time as if Billyís present situation is ďremindingĒ him of some future event. The transitions are not random in the slightest. And although the idea that heís time-tripping is given occasional lip service here and there, itís not really represented on film.

The result is that Vonnegutís theme is somewhat obscured. Billyís lack of control over his present metaphorically extends to his lack of control over time. The Tralfamadorians, fourth dimensional beings, advise him merely to experience the good parts of his life and ignore the rest. They canít understand that this is impossible for three dimensional beings. We have to endure the full impact of each moment of our lives, pleasant or not. Thatís Vonnegutís point.

The fire-bombing of Dresden was a bleak chapter in the history of WWII. 135,000 people were killed in this assault on a historic city inside of Germany, which had no wartime industries or military significance. (By way of comparison, the A-bomb killed 71,379 at Hiroshima.) Vonnegut actually was a POW in Dresden at the time, and he based Slaughterhouse-Five on his experiences. His descriptions of the mind-numbing aftermath of the attack are not pretty. In a typical display of Hollywood spinelessness, the film makes it look like a Sunday picnic. You wonít see the smoldering logs that were once people. You wonít join in the hellish journey, from noon until nightfall, through a devastation of melted glass and metal, made without encountering a single other living soul.

The film further undermines the integrity of the novel by overdeveloping some of the characters, -particularly Lazzaro, who is converted to a full-fledged villain -for purely pedestrian dramatic purposes. By being victimized at the hands of more dominant characters, Billy loses his ďEverymanĒ status, and sometimes he seems more like a comic nobody in the vein of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In any event, strong willed characters (largely absent from the book) are an anathema to the central theme of the loss of individual self-determination as a result of war.

Another disappointment of is the somewhat bloodless filmic style. Stephen Gellerís carefully perfected screenplay is followed with cookie-cutter precision. Every scene is fashioned with a strictly routine sense of detail; the camera work is slow, deliberate and joyless. Real locations are used whenever possible, but captured unimaginatively. The Dresden settings (recreated in the city of Prague, as Dresden was behind the iron curtain in 1972) fail either to evoke a documentary realism or conjure an atmosphere of dread. The effectiveness of these scenes derives from the moving screenplay itself, the quality of the acting, and the occasional thrilling flood of Bach. In general, the innovative narrative style of the novel rubs of on the film and makes it seem stylish. But the filmmaking is actually quite bland and has no interesting tricks or character of its own.

However, when all is said and done, it is still absorbing and fun to watch this unfolding of Vonnegutís curious story, especially if youíve also read the book. The wartime scenes are effective and dramatic, if somewhat sanitized. Plus, there is a little black humor here and there, some sex, and a science-fiction twist. It has its limitations, but this is a worthwhile film.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=2431&reviewer=407
originally posted: 09/12/05 02:05:46
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User Comments

11/27/13 raouljohn I liked the idea of "Pilgrim's Progress" . . . 4 stars
7/14/13 mr.mike I was not thrilled. 3 stars
12/09/09 W. W. Yoder, III Good attempt to film a great book. 4 stars
11/13/08 brian Badly dated stylistically, but occasionally quite good. 3 stars
1/26/07 Gerard M. Palomo Masterpiece.No one mentions the obvious allusion to "Pilgrim's Prgress"-deep irony! 5 stars
9/18/05 Glennyce Paetzmann Considering the subject, it could have been much worse. Check it out. 4 stars
3/23/04 chris AWFUL actors, terrible adaptation. read the book, don't watch this crap. 2 stars
9/13/03 Ingo Excellent actors in an irritating setup. 5 stars
11/22/02 Charles Tatum Incredible, the best Vonnegut adaptation 5 stars
9/01/02 y2mckay Interesting non-linear time-space manipulation. Valerie Perrine's rack is heavenly 4 stars
1/16/01 R.W. Welch Strikingly original, slightly surreal, and expertly executed. A film gem. 5 stars
11/02/00 Corey must-see for anyone who thinks outside-the-box 5 stars
4/30/00 me superb film. gets across a new and interesting message 5 stars
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  01-Jun-1972 (R)
  DVD: 25-May-2004



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