SOME naturalistic novels you read like you would your Freud or Marx, to grasp some wide-scale analysis of human experience to use to change your life. Others you might read solely for their expressive vision of a stratum of common experience, which might encompass ideology enroute, but is mainly concerned with the stink and feel of actions and their settings.
Somewhere underneath this level come the literary middlemen, storytellers who can really sell a joke or raise your hackles with suspense. Though their ideas be meagre and their verbal powers limited, they often pack the widest popular punch, and persuasively reflect the pervasive attitudes of an age.
Kurt Vonnegut, even at his best, is a middleman, but Slaughterhouse-Five is his best by far. He gets rage and desperation into his science-fiction time-space games; for once he deals with an incident of historical importance which he lived through, the fire-bombing of Dresden in 1944 by Allied troops. Because the acrid smell of flesh burning in the biggest civilian massacre of World War II has not left his nostrils. Vonnegut, who was transferred to the non-industrial cultural center as a POW, admits in his introduction that he's compelled for once to do more than spin out fantasy, to fantasize in order to justify a good- natured G.I.'s presence at the slaughter in the eyes of the world.
Vonnegut, being a middleman, can't get very far with ideas. He doesn't link up Dresden with any inherent political or social conflicts it symbolizes, implying instead a state of moral squalor necessary for such a catastrophe to have taken place. And his vision is only that of Bill Pilgrim, a stupid if sweethearted protagonist, bumbling between the Ilium upper-middle-class of Vonnegut's present, the Dresden holocaust, and the planet Tralfamadore, where he cavorts with a nubile Hollywood starlet in a fantasy-world designed to protect him from being fatally bound to his depressing earthliness.
Not exactly the materials for War and Peace, or even a Rabbit Redux. But Vonnegut is entertaining: he works with a writing line of aptly terse description prone to break into fragments of anecdote whenever a theme needs developing. And he cuts into the narrative with his own voice, full of pathos expressed in the right phrases. "So it goes," the Tralfamadorian "lament" for death repeated by Vonnegut whenever he's forced to report it, is at first a "would you believe twenty killings?" shtik--only to become a Shantih, Shantih of a different stripe and level.
ALL VONNEGUT actually makes clear is that technology has brought us to the point where you can say nothing analytically sensible about massacre. With a lot of no-crap Yankee charm, he also attacks all who would defend the Dresden bombing, from academic historians who age into monsters to breakass generals and Allied patriots. But Billy learns on Traifamadore only that life has good moments and bad ones, and war is a bad moment that should not be concentrated long on.
Vonnegut might yet recognize the underlying unrelieved fatalism of his Slaughterhouse view, and may move beyond it having admitted the limits of his hero. So may many of the high school students and undergrads who think Billy a traditional pilgrim moving to some new point of enlightenment, and not a sad comment on the heroic temper of our times.
Luckily, the film rights to the book feel to a middleman as craftsmanship and intelligent as Vonnegut himself--and certainly more restrained in his celebration of innocence. I would never have expected these qualities from the man's record: director George Roy Hill has previously given us such pedestrian derivatory fairy tales as Hawaii and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Here he sticks to the book in knowledgeable, workmanlike fashion, even clearing up some narrative mess, making the whole more consistent and straightforward and thus more powerful. What he and a skilled novice screenwriter (Stephen Geller) have done is combine some of the Vonnegut reactions the author presents intermittently in his book with a now slightly-more-articulate Pilgrim. They have also cut away any digressive interludes with such past Vonnegut characters as do-gooder Eliot Rosewater and sci-fi prophet Kilgore Trout, and built up interplay between two characters more central to the heart of Slaughterhouse itself: Edgar Derby, Billy's best friend, substitute father figure and moral fellow; and PaulLazarro, the evil of the world summed up in a pipsqueak from South Philly, a monomaniacal revenger who finally kills Pilgrim for no good reason. Derby is executed for "stealing" a figurine from the Dresden rubble in order to replace an identical one broken by his son, While Lazarro survives the war rat-like, chewing off his own guts and using the bile he collects against mankind in general.
Though the Vonnegutian prose is lost, it's not really missed. The slickly manipulated surface is compensated by accomplished achievements in all technical departments. Hill has hired the best in the business--editor Dede Allen, photographer Miroslav Ondricek, musician Glenn Gould, and they all do as well as can be done with craft that lacks original inspiration. And the simplification of the story, and its screen enactment by a talented ensemble, result in as hard-driving a simple-minded pacifist's statement as the novel.
MICHAEL SACKS is a perfect Pilgrim--an ordinary Joe, likeable to the core, without an ounce of bellicosity in him, wanting to fill a need for people in more ways than being an optometrist. He has an unsynched walk and awry grin before Dresden, but ages believably into a self-controlled human shell who finds outlet for his bank of sympathy by raising a dog named Spot. He is ably supported by Eugene Roche's Derby, a solid man who's based his life on Christian principle (though not aware of its shaky national foundation), moving with that authority even when threatened; and Ron Liebman as Lazarro, speaking with guttural snorts that carry with him all that his unforgiving orphan's nature ever suffered.
One interesting side point unique to the film emerges from the direction. Hill, always a literal- minded director (if not always tasteful, as he is in Slaughterhouse), stages most of the actions as you'd expect from a one-time stage director, setting his scene carefully and filling it with the people necessary for the progression of dramatic conflicts, intent neither on using the camera for continuous personal statement nor establishing a flowing reality for the camera to record (the latter made impossible by the nature of the book). But in the scenes of the P.O.W.'s first entrance into Dresden, the camera--panning across the Ozlike cityscape, swooping down on the troops in narrow streets an courtyards, caressing gargoyles and sculpture with brief scanning motions--gives us, after editing, a man-made world quite different from any the Americans have ever known. When later in the film the prisoners emerge from bomb shelters on Feb. 13, 1944, and a callow Nazi d berates them as he runs through his gutted city (vainly searching for a girl lying buried in the rubble), the grief and shame the shots produce are unendurable: It's as if all individuality, all the special human art and love which went into the building of the city have been irrevocably destroyed by what seem like uncontrollable modern forces. Hill is no Ruskin, but his appreciation for medieval images not only is sincere, but makes the Vonnegutian world view even darker. America has always relied more directly than other Western countries on raw nature for its lifeways and philosophies. With our resulting flexibility and vigor, says this film, we've helped kill the Old World order of things. And back home we're starting to pollute our own land as well, with our cars and our thoughtlessness.
But that's Hill's big touch, and he otherwise relies squarely on Vonnegut. Vonnegut is no Heller--he can't truck with theory or the wide scope that precedes it. But he's touched upon the major fears of our century, and had us feel his despair. And by being true to Vonnegut, George Roy Hill has produced a moving (if cerebrally uninteresting) film, which has less pretension and more honesty to it than such an adaptation of a much worthier book as Mike Nichol's film of Catch-22.