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Between Time and Timbuktu was an effort at doing an introductory "best-of-Kurt-Vonnegut" for national TV. Although some Vonnegut fans think it's a diluted mess (see the book reviews), it serves well as a quirky intro to some of his themes and characters. William Hickey is wonderful as the bewildered "astronaut", and Bob and Ray are at their peak, with some hysterically funny dialogue. Why isn't it available on video?
When I was 14, I saw Between And Timbuktu for the first time. I even tape recorded it on my old portable Panasonic cassette player (the one with the blue and white piano-like keys) and used to listen to it over and over again. It made a lasting impression on me that persists to this day. Other than being very entertaining and quite funny, it, (1) introduced me to the works of Kurt Vonnegut, (2) introduced me to Bob & Ray (3) introduced me to a number of diverse actors who I will always first and foremost associate with their roles here including William Hickey, Kevin McCarthy and Susan Sullivan. And even though I have long since lost that tape, and Kurt apparently continues to block any efforts to make this film available (while allowing Slapstick to stink up the ether), it will always have a warm place in my heart.
NASA decides to launch the first "ordinary" man into space, based on writing a winning jingle. Our astronaut gets more than he bargained for with a bizarre trip through space and time. For myself the most memorable parts include: 1) Bob and Ray's ongoing commentary and their attempts to remember Armstrong's "one great step..." line and 2) a future in which the government tries to make everybody equal by reducing them to the lowest common denominator of abilities. It's a real trip watching a ballet performed in which the dancers have to wear weights to make themselves clumsy.
When I went to college in the early 1970s the leading contemporary
American novelists who were popular were Kurt Vonnegut and Richard
Brautigan. Brautigan's TROUT FISHING IN America was very popular, but
his subsequent writings failed to maintain his popularity. Not so
Vonnegut, whose string of successes lasted far longer. I read
SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, GOD BLESS YOU MR. ROSEWATER, CAT'S CRADLE, THE
SIRENS OF TITAN, MOTHER NIGHT, and the other books. So this particular
television show really interested me.
It was like a selection of episodes from the various novels and short stories of Vonnegut, hosted (as news reporters) by Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding. Goulding is reprising the role of "Walter Gesundheit" he played in a movie a few years earlier. Eliott is playing an astronaut (like Wally Schirra, who frequently appeared with Walter Cronkite at space shots). They get bogged down trying to recall Neil Armstrong's first words upon the Moon surface. William Hickey played Stony Stevenson, the best friend of the hero in THE SIRENS OF TITAN. He is chosen to be the world's first time traveler, and we see him going from one place to another.
Hickey meets Dr. Hoenikker/Hurd Hatfield (creator of "Ice 9" - and an example of the short sightedness of government sponsored science), and Bokonon/Kevin McCarthy (the ultimately powerless religious leader) from CAT'S CRADLE. He meets Wanda June from Vonnegut's play. He sees the threat of puritanical-ism mixed with inane political correctness in the future when he crosses the path of one woman vigilante Diane Moon Gompers.
The show as an introduction to Vonnegut was very good. Parts of it were shot in Flushing Meadow Park, not far from my home. So I thoroughly enjoyed the program.
I was mesmerized by this strange film back in 1972, and it lingered in
my memories for years until I was finally able to view it a few months
ago. The parts that I recall held up beautifully, especially Bob &
Ray's work (which was largely ad-libbed). Some of the Vonnegut stories
work, some don't: the "Handicapper General" piece is quite scary and
all too real, as is the section about ethical suicide parlors. But in
the end it's Elliot and Goulding (and Hickey) who save the day.
I still can't think about "ex-astronaut Bud Williams, Jr." telling his story about Tang without smiling. Wish they would release this on DVD (and another early NET special - America, Inc. with Jean Shepherd).
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Between Time and Timbuktu (or Prometheus-5) is a space fantasy
comprised of excerpts from novels and stories by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. He
was commissioned to be an adviser on and contributor to the script in
1971. The program was nationally aired on Public (Broadcasting)
Television Stations on March 13, 1972. Many good people created funny
stuff as the filming progressed, most notably Bob Elliott and Ray
Goulding, and with Fred Barzyk, the director. Created at WGBH
Television studios in Boston. Starring William Hickey, the reluctant
astronaut "Stony Stevenson", who won a sweepstakes "Blast-Off Space
Food Jingle Contest", and they come to the door of his house like
Publishers Clearinghouse. His mother Mrs. Stevenson (Dortha Duckworth)
answers the door. She later relocated to Mission Control during the
time Stony is in space. The spaceflight is followed by Walter
Gesundheit (Ray Goulding) and Budd Williams Jr. (Bob Elliott). In
mission control is lead by Col. Donald "Tex" Pirandello (Franklin
Cover) and Sandy Abernathy (Russell Morash) is a reporter covering the
protest from the radical evangelist Dr. Bobby Denton (John Devlin), who
was released yesterday from Federal Prison. He preached that
Prometheus-5 is a Tower of Babel. The movie is a medley of the
following Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. stores:
Transported in time by the Chronosynclastic Infundibulum, he travels "one hundred and twenty million miles in three months, four days, thirteen hours, three minutes and seven seconds." The Island of San Lorenzo: (Cat's Cradle) He meets the leader "Bokonon (Kevin Mc Carthy)" who wrote "The books of Bokonon" and his "children" (followers) are referred to as Bokononoists. An island girl (Edie Lynch) and all are being chased by soldier (Jerry Gershman). The religion was outlawed by the President (to give more zest, more tang) and it did in the beginning Then people practicing the religion started being executed. "I suppose that it goes to show that you have to be very careful who you pretend to be, because one day you may wake up to find that's what you are". The next stop in the Chronosynclastic Infundibulum is (Player Piano) where we meet Dr. Paul Proteus (James Sloyan) who is on trial for armed insurrection and treason. The prosecutor (George Serries) has a classic line: "In this unbiased essay we will see the fruits of our great society. This is the same society that the defendant wishes to destroy. This is the same society that is paying you for jury duty today. It is indeed "A Land of Plenty" (animated movie is shown). The next stop in the Chronosynclastic Infundibulum is a telephone booth in Schenectady (also from Player Piano), asking for change from a drunk (John Peters) who gives him coins saying "That is the saddest story I ever heard". Then next stop in the Chronosynclastic Infundibulum onto (Cat's Cradle) into the lobby of the "Hoenikker Laboratory of Immortality" (Hurd Hatfield) and assistant Miss Martin (Helen Stenborg) laying on a table, being thawed out. Disclosed is his research on "Ice Nine", a seed with a melting point of a hundred and forty degrees Fahrenheit, to freeze mud for military applications. The next stop in the Chronosynclastic Infundibulum falls onto (Welcome to the Monkey House) with a Handicapper General, a woman named Diana Moon Glampers (Benay Venuta). This is a society where true equality is based on "handicapping everyone". In a TV studio, a ballet is being performed by two dancers, shackled and masked. Harrison Bergeron (Avind Haerum) suddenly breaks out of his handicaps, and removes the Ballerina (Alexis Hoff) handicaps. The strains of "Romeo and Juliet" fill the air. They dance. Meanwhile, a double-barrel shotgun is being loaded, and fired at the two dancers. Our next stop in the Chronosynclastic Infundibulum falls into "The Ethical Suicide Parlor, the population explosion has people massed and pressed against one another outside. Stony is escorted by Nancy (Susan Sullivan) delivers a tray of food to Lionel J. Howard (Charles White) while a TV commercial announcer (Phillip Bruns) plays in the room. Lionel J. Howard has chosen cyanide. His wife wanted him to take the carbon monoxide, but he told her "cyanide's more masculine". After taking the needle, his last request is "What are people for?" Next is a long line of candles quietly flickering and Stony with a kitten on a flat dry ground in wide empty arena at night (Happy Birthday Wanda June). Noise of a fire truck approaching: "Hi, I am Wanda June" (Ariane Munker). Stony asks "Am I dead?" Wanda replies "Nothing to be ashamed about, today was going to be my birthday, but I was hit by an ice cream truck before I could have my party. I am dead now, I am in heaven. Everybody up here is happy." The celebration comes to a discordant end as Hitler (Page Johnson) appears, goose-stepping and snarling from a balcony. "What a poor specimen of a man you are!" Stony replies "That's been said before". Hitler "Do you know who I am?" and Stony says "Yes. And you scare the hell out of me. More than anything I've seen in my life." Hitler: "I am death, and I am final. (Aside, awed by himself) God, am I ever final!" speaking to Wanda June "Go to the worms, my blond Teutonic child" Stony commands people to randomly appear and disappear. Next we see Stony working his way out of a grave in Brooklyn cemetery, reading epitaph on tombstone "Stony Stevenson. Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt." Stony walks away from the grave and approaches a man with a lawn mower (McIntyre Dixon) There's a tombstone back there "Tombstone? An understatement is what that is." It says "Stony Stevenson, astronaut". He's not actually buried there, that's just a memorial his mother put up. He is out there in space or time, who knows where he is? His space capsule splashed down in the Pacific with a note and a half-empty bottle of Tang. The note said what's written on the tombstone.
I saw this on Public Television When I was 17 and really enjoyed it. Although the special effects were a bit hokey, the screenplay was well written and the production was wonderfully cast. I would love to have a copy of this in my video collection but short of that would at least like to see it again. If anyone out there has the rights to this they would do us a great service by re-releasing it.
I saw this film one time and one time only, in a Sci-Fi Lit class in my
senior year of high school in 1980. This made a big impression on me to
this day. There were moments of joyful silliness (Walter Gesundheit is
actually a double pun, if you are studying German, which I also was
taking that year), and scenes of incredibly pure beauty. I found large
parts of this movie promoted a philosophy of hope, which was very
important to a (then) suicidal teenager. This film kept me out of the
knife-room for MONTHS.
I don't know where the teacher obtained the print, and if I could get a copy these days, I would without hesitation, even if I had to pay a lot. Quick, someone tell Mr. Vonnegut so it will be released.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
My high school library had a copy of this video available on demand
back in 1975. (We were pretty technologically advanced.) I'll bet I
watched it 20 times. I can still hear Bob and Ray killing time on the
air while they awaited news of Stony Stevenson's flight into the
chrono-synclastic infundibulum. The echoes of Walter Cronkite were
Stony's sudden arrival back on Earth in the middle of some unknown city and asking for a dime to make a phone call to report back in to NASA is one of the great comic bits I've ever seen. Is it satire of NASA or just a satirical joke by Kurt Vonnegut that man's exploration of space will take him to places he never expected? This made for TV production is certainly not really a 10 but it's not a 1 either and it should be made available at least for online downloading. In reality, it's probably a good 10 for Vonnegut fans and a 1 for everyone else.
If anyone knows where to get it, I surely would appreciate hearing about it.
I am a huge fan of Kurt Vonnegut's novels. And, like Mr. Vonnegut, I am
also a huge fan of Bob and Ray. This teleplay has been on my wish list
for decades, but it is incredibly elusive. I finally found a copy of it
on DVD online. It Does Exist!
In short, all of the elements of a great Vonnegut novel are there. It has some great ideas and incredible insights.
There are some elaborate visual effects which must have been state-of-the-art in 1972, but seem to be a bit dated. The effects seem to be a bit overdone by today's standards, but serve the important purpose of showing the viewer where Stony becomes "unstuck in time" to use a Slaughterhouse-5 expression.
Above all it was great to see Bob and Ray doing what they do best: Witty, yet understated humor.
My biggest fear was of being disappointed in the production. I was afraid that I had built my hopes up too much. But in the end, I must quote the film itself:
Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
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