Slaughterhouse-Five (1972, George Roy Hill)

When Slaughterhouse-Five is just about World War II, director Hill can handle it. He doesn’t understand the humor, but he can handle it. The script doesn’t understand its own humor, as screenwriter Stephen Geller tries to force his own sense of humor on the source material, but Hill just makes it worse. Especially when he’s got an actor like Ron Leibman going wild with his role.

Leibman gets the joke. Hill doesn’t. Hill has an incredibly big problem with Slaughterhouse-Five, he can’t figure out how to be serious about it. He can be showy about it, but he can’t be serious about it. Not serious enough because he can’t embrace the fantastical nature of the source material. Hill can’t buy in; the script doesn’t help on this one either, but Hill can’t buy in. Like the book says, so it goes.

As a result, the World War II sequences–set to beautiful Glenn Gould music, featuring this desolate Miroslav Ondrícek photography, with Dede Allen’s sublime cuts–oh, and star Michael Sacks walking around like a complete doofus. Apparently, someone important was real set on Sacks as the lead in the film, because there’s no other explanation why they didn’t get someone better. Sacks doesn’t have a part in the script. He’s an enigma. Hill avoids giving him speaking shots in close-up, so he’s mostly just observing. Again, enigma. But since Hill can’t seem to shoot the script, he’s fuddling with the actors too. Sacks gets nothing from Hill. Not a thing. It’s incredible. As soon as the opening titles are done, Hill’s giving the movie away to the supporting cast.

For a while that approach almost works. Handing the movie off to a better actor than Sacks, who spends half the film in World War II and half the film in old age make-up and in the present day. Only some of the present day stuff is flashback too, with its own younger old age make-up.

It’s bad make-up. Ondrícek doesn’t shoot it, or the special effects, well. So it looks like a joke, which certainly doesn’t seem to be what anyone’s going for, but no one’s in much agreement. And Sacks should be pulled in all directions by this indecision; only he’s so bland, he’s unaffected. It’s kind of incredible, the lead actor’s performance unaffected by disaster.

Only in such a good production–save the special effects, Slaughterhouse-Five is a fine production. It’s just not a good movie. Not as a strict adaptation or a loose one. Hill and company end going for something safe, some ironic camp. When the film gets to its abrupt finish, where–theoretically–one might want Sacks to have gone through some kind of change, if not internally than at least in relation to the others or the audience, but no… Hill never lets the film head in that direction. Questions are down that path. Slaughterhouse-Five doesn’t want to raise any of those.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a contemporary adaptation of controversial breakout bestseller, it’s inherently mercenary. Hill doesn’t want to try to mimic the book’s controversies, so he tries to distract from his avoidance of them. Don’t look at the stunning lack of ambition, let’s all laugh at Sharon Gans being reduced to a joke about her weight. Time and again, even though she starts the film stronger than Sacks; the film cuts to their wedding night and Gans immediately overpowers Sacks. And Hill doesn’t seem to care and Sacks doesn’t notice because his performance would have to change, which it doesn’t.

Ever.

So, Gans never gets her due. When Valerie Perrine comes in, Hill and Geller set her up to be some great presence, but she’s not either. Because she’s not set in the World War II stuff. Everything present in Slaughterhouse-Five flops, with the exception of some of Gans’s performance… and nothing else. Nothing else works in the present.

Eugene Roche is great as Sacks’s mentor in World War II. Leibman’s great. The script’s not good but the actors still get through and the plot’s good. It’s just building towards the Dresden bombing. Hill can handle that kind of narrative progression.

It’s all the rest of it he can’t handle.

Sacks doesn’t add anything–he’s not maliciously being bad, he’s just moping. Malice would require something no one is willing to give Sacks–personality.

Some gorgeous filmmaking though. In the World War II parts, usually when not involving lots of dialogue because the dialogue gives Hill problems. Again, not the actors, just Hill. So not the talky parts. Unless it’s Roche.

Slaughterhouse-Five is too professionally competent to be unbearable. It’s just abjectly without ambition.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by George Roy Hill; screenplay by Stephen Geller, based on the novel by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; director of photography, Miroslav Ondrícek; edited by Dede Allen; music by Glenn Gould; production designer, Henry Bumstead; produced by Paul Monash; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael Sacks (Billy Pilgrim), Ron Leibman (Paul Lazzaro), Eugene Roche (Edgar Derby), Sharon Gans (Valencia Merble Pilgrim), Valerie Perrine (Montana Wildhack), Holly Near (Barbara Pilgrim), Perry King (Robert Pilgrim), and Kevin Conway (Roland Weary).


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