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Adaptation of the cult novel by Kurt Vonnegut, directed by George Roy Hill and starring Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman and Eugene Roche. Billy Pilgrim (Sacks) is a young soldier in the Second World War who is captured by the Germans and sent to a POW camp. While being taken there to be imprisoned he witnesses the firebombing of Dresden, an event which causes him to be 'unstuck in time' and results in him living his life simultaneously as a POW, an optician in present day America, and as an elderly abducted resident of an alien zoo on the planet Tralfamadore.
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The Blu ray telecine: EGADS!!! What a horrifyingly blown-out image. At approximately 22:31 where the night train rolls into the German prisoner of war camp you can barely make out the image because it is overwhelmingly crawling with film grain. I mean crawling so badly that it takes on the shape of some type of digital horror monster almost like it's alive.
At the beginning of the film, where Billy Pilgrim is walking through the snow drifts, there are tons of specks and glitches that ruin the whole 'abandoned in nowhere' psych of the presentation. I mean, it interferes greatly with the attempt to enjoy the filmic atmosphere. So, there was absolutely no digital restoration done for this Blu ray.
Then, there's the audio which only plays through the center-channel speaker. If you happen to have a pretty kicking center-channel (which I DO have) then it might be tolerable, for you but not for me. I hate companies that do lazy mono transfers and assign them to the center-channel speaker. Give me a BREAK, make it two-channel mono and make sure it gets assigned to the left/right speakers so that it is capable of spatial depth!
As stated above, this Blu ray transfer stunk so bad that at 22:31 I ejected the Blu ray and put in the Universal SD DVD that was released in 2004 and is anamorphic. NIGHT and DAY difference, which translates into the following description: I never thought I'd see this happen when an SD DVD blows a Blu ray out of the water!! The 2004 SD DVD also looks near perfect in the opening snow sequence. Not only that, the mono audio is CORRECTLY encoded to go to the left/right speakers.
This transfer to Blu ray is complete TRASH. Do yourself a favor and get the Universal 2004 SD DVD.
In the first place, the print from which the digital transfer was made was probably of a lower quality, perhaps a second- or third-run print, and very noisy throughout, even in the better-lit scenes. Then, the digital processing was so heavy-handed with noise reduction and compression that the final result is a pasty, haloed mess with severely crushed shadows and highlights.
I watch my films on a high-quality Sony SXRD projector and 92-inch Da-Lite Matte screen in a lighting-controlled room, and so my expectations are high, but this Blu-ray is more like VHS tape quality. I own an NTSC anamorphic DVD copy of this film which is noticeably better than this Blu-ray, sad because this is a film I like and I long for a more movie theater-like experience for it.
Perhaps someday BFI or Criterion will do a proper digital transfer from good film elements.
Eight hundred Allied bombers approached the city on the night of 13 February 1945. The first wave flattened the city, the second — dropping napalm-like incendiary bombs — torched what remained. Thousands burned to death, though most suffocated, oxygen sucked from the air and their lungs by the flames.
Vonnegut survived in his air lock, a meat locker buried two stories underground, Schlachthof-fünf by name, or Slaughterhouse five. A fluke, naturally, that he was there, a contingency that he and his lot survived the firestorm when thousands of Germans did not. The moment of panic-fear wiped away all human distinctions when the air-raid sirens sounded, the instinct to survive superseding all else, thus saving him and his comrades.
Counterpoint concerning the city is beautifully established in the film. It is first viewed in silhouette along the banks of the Elbe, its gables, turrets and towers dark against a white sky just after dawn. It’s viewed from the barred windows of a cattle car that carries the prisoners into the city. In the novel Vonnegut writes that “the skyline was intricate and voluptuous, enchanted and absurd. It looked like a Sunday school picture of Heaven to Billy Pilgrim [Everyman protagonist in the story].”
From the central station the prisoners are marched through the city to their detention camps. Wide eyes, open faces. Classical music, no dialogue as the film follows them. All this beauty, this Baroque splendour, after what they have seen in this awful war: blood, mud, pain and death. The streets are cobblestone, the buildings ornate. The local people, mostly civilians, watch them on parade, filthy and bedraggled. These locals just look, saying nothing. So this is what we have been fighting? Yes, Dresden was off the beaten track, rather isolated by the war. Thus it was hardly protected, all the big guns elsewhere.
Dresden, Florence of the Elbe, famous for its Meissen porcelain miniatures and Renaissance architecture. Loved throughout Germany and Europe. Destroy this? Why? Who would think to? And yet… There is always ‘and yet’ in this life.
It is early February 1945. That is when the prisoners arrive. Nobody in Dresden knows it now but in less than two weeks the city, founded in the 12th century, will be gone.
How can Vonnegut (and George Roy Hill, director of the film) tell such a story? How does art compete with napalm? Wisely, they acknowledge it cannot. They let the destruction speak for itself.
As for us, humanity, victims of ourselves and our devices, we react as expected, traumatised by the damage. We time trip, lose our minds, have nervous breakdowns. Or we would as Billy does. The film is about this journey, the journey of the pilgrim called Pilgrim to save his sanity and humanity in the aftermath of Armageddon.
Billy’s PTSD will time trip him through all sorts of dark burlesque that parodies normality. This includes the postwar middle-class American family Billy is tangentially a part of, a normality made by conformity, consumption and patriotism. Billy as war hero, husband, father, home and dog owner, Lions Club president, successful optometrist. Red-white-and-blue middle American — especially white. The land of the Midwest, doubtlessly, Trump country in the making. Having survived Dresden, he’s now asked to survive this. How can he? By time tripping, his shell-shock nightmares refusing to release him. What is real and what’s a dream? Dresden or this? — the family dog, corpulent wife, spoiled children, big lawn and big cars.
He’s saved, it seems, by Montana Wildhack, a buxom starlet who likes to take her clothes off in film. Billy fantasizes about her. So does his teenage son Robert who sits wild-eyed on the toilet with magazines featuring her nudity. Father and son seem united in aesthetic taste, as we see in one family scene at a drive-in movie. Flashing her wares on the big screen, Montana shares a Roman bath with a callow young centurion, soon to be made a man. Outraged, mum and daughter avert their eyes. Not so father and son. Both gape and salivate.
This being Vonnegut, of course Billy and Montana will have to meet. They do so, but not here on Earth where most people meet. They meet on Tralfamadore, a planet in a distant star system. Billy and dog Spot are abducted by aliens — Tralfamadorians — to be studied. Billy and Spot live in a glass dome on the planet. The atmosphere is noxious, largely composed of cyanide, so walking the dog outside the dome is not an option. Billy’s masters (whom we hear but don’t see) want him to be comfortable, but he is not. Though he loves Spot, he feels isolated and lonely. The aliens read his thoughts and teleport Montana Wildhack to the planet and dome. She arrives shrieking, panicked and topless, her only raiment a thin G-string. Billy smiles upon her arrival, pleased with both the courtesy of his hosts and Montana’s contours.
They get to know one another rather quickly, become affectionate, mate (beneath the ‘night canopy’, which Billy routinely requests for privacy when they copulate, which is frequent). Time passes and they sire a child — a little boy, the first human being not born on Earth.
Curiously, Billy is able to revisit Earth but when his daughter and her husband refuse to believe his claims about Tralfamadore, Montana and the baby he decides to permanently relocate to the other planet. Apparently.
Maybe that’s what Vonnegut really wants to say. Maybe any planet that can perpetuate and countenance the destruction of Dresden forfeits its status as a pleasure dome. Billy will take his chances elsewhere, isolation, cyanide and other negativities be damned. Back home in the dome loyal dog, sexy mate and healthy son await him. Also, it should be noted that Tralfamadore’s temporal make-up does not include past and future. The present is the be-all and end-all on that planet.
So in the end Montana with her top off becomes Billy’s call to sanity. Survivor indeed.