BetweenTimeNTimbuktuIt’s no stretch to call this one of the strangest programs ever broadcast on American television.  BETWEEN TIME AND TIMBUKTU is a 1972 TV movie “Based on Materials” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (such as the novels PLAYER PIANO and THE SIRENS OF TITAN, the play HAPPY BIRTHDAY WANDA JUNE and the short story “Harrison Bergeron”), who acted as an advisor to the project.  In later years, however, Vonnegut decided he didn’t like the film and blocked its distribution (likewise the published screenplay, which has become one of Vonnegut’s scarcest books), a situation that has remained in effect after his death.

It begins with a TV announcer (Bruce Morrow, a.k.a. “Cousin Brucie”) informing the average-guy poet Stony Stevenson (William Hickey) that he’s won a contest that has landed him the chance to pilot the Prometheus 5 space capsule.  The launch of this capsule is quite calamitous, but goes off as planned, blasting the clueless Stony into space.  

After several months the capsule vanishes.  While the news media futilely wonder where he’s gone, Stony undergoes a 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY-esque psychedelic trip that lands him in a rural landscape filled with scantily clad young folk that’s presided over by an elderly sage (Kevin McCarthy).  The latter brands this place the Island of San Lorenzo, upon which he was washed ashore years earlier.  He apparently went on to create a peaceful, hedonistic religion for the island’s young inhabitants to follow, but that religion was outlawed by the land’s rulers.

Deciding he’s caught up in a nightmare world of his own making, Stony decamps for the nearest big city.  There he witnesses a man put on trial for his crimes and locates a pay phone, from which he calls mission control.  He passes out before he can complete the call, and comes to in a strange building stocked by scientists, Christmas carolers and a rabidly pro-war Marine.

We learn more about this dream world, which is regulated by laws stating that nobody is allowed to be better than anyone else.  Should anyone dare to exhibit any ability superior to that of his fellows he’s “handicapped.”  In Stony’s case that means he’s given headphones that blast nonsense into his head so he won’t be able to think, and sandbags strapped to his body so he can’t outrun anyone.

Stony escapes his confines, however, and finds himself engaged in further bizarre exploits, including an assassination carried out by his own elderly mother, an “ethical suicide” delivery service for those wishing to do themselves in, a sojourn in a land where happiness is achieved by marathon shuffle board games, and a meeting with death, who takes the form of a cut-rate Adolph Hitler wannabe.

As directed by Fred Barzyk (who went on to helm further eccentric American TV movies like 1980’s LATHE OF HEAVEN and 1984’s COUNTDOWN TO LOOKING GLASS), this film exhibits an appealing combination of psychedelic imagery and ironic comedy that’s quintessentially Vonnegut-flavored.  It’s quite experimental overall, with the opening scenes presented in the form of an extended TV news broadcast hosted by news anchor extraordinaire “Walter Gesundheit” (Ray Goulding) and ex astronaut “Bud Williams, Jr.” (Bob Elliot), who were based on two actual early-1970s TV personalities (I’ll leave it to you to figure out which ones), and the later scenes taking on a much stranger and more organic hue.  It all grows a bit self-indulgent and incoherent in the final third, in a manner very much in keeping with the cinematic excesses of the previous decade.

BETWEEN TIME AND TIMBUKTU is, in short, a must for anyone interested in Kurt Vonnegut’s writings, even if the man himself didn’t agree.

Vital Statistics

Educational Broadcasting Corporation

Director: Fred Barzyk
Producer: David R. Loxton
Screenplay: Fred Barzyk, David R. Loxton, David Odell
(Based on “Materials” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.)
Cinematography: Boyd Estus
Editing: Dick Bartlett
Cast: William Hickey, Ray Goulding, Bob Elliot, Franklin Cover, Russell Morash, John Devlin, Jay Garner, Kevin McCarthy, Edie Lynch, Jerry Gershman, James Sloyan, George Serries, Ashley Wescott, Dortha Duckworth, “Cousin Brucie” Morrow