Judge Jim Thomas never mailed anyone a dead gopher, but his brother put a live frog in the mailbox. Mom was not amused.
Harlan Ellison has won almost every major award in his field, his stories have transformed the genre of speculative fiction, his non-fiction has garnered worldwide acclaim—in fact, both are used in college classes across the nation. He's also written extensively for television, including classic segments for The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone. At the same time, he is one of the more polarizing figures in the realm of speculative fiction. His acerbic personality has made him the stuff of legend, to the point that the myth has often overwhelmed reality; to this day, he still has to explain that no, he never shoved a fan down an elevator shaft at a convention.
In 1981, Erik Nelson shot some footage of Ellison for a PBS special that never came to pass. Nelson continued to interview Ellison over the years, and at length Nelson realized that he had enough for a full-length documentary, and fleshed out the existing material by interviewing some of Ellison's closest friends, including Robin Williams, Ron Moore, and Neil Gaiman. Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth takes us from Ellison's childhood in Painesville, Ohio, to the present day (more or less), affording us a glimpse of the man behind the curtain.
Now, Dreams With Sharp Teeth comes to us courtesy of Docurama Films.
Dreams With Sharp Teeth makes no attempt to downplay Ellison's caustic personality; in fact, that personality is the focus of the first 20 minutes or so. From insisting that he get paid for his work, to confronting a fan at a convention, to yelling at someone for using a cell phone while driving, the initial image of Ellison is that of a cantankerous pain in the ass. Whereas a lesser being might respond to being cheated by a publisher with a strongly worded letter, Ellison once responded by mailing said publishing house a dead gopher. In the middle of summer. Fourth class. So it's perhaps not surprising that the personality overshadows the work at times. Woven throughout his section is an overview of his writing career, and the various accolades garnered during a fifty-year career, begging the question that drives any good biography: Just who the hell is this guy?
Thus the scene shifts to Ellison's childhood in Painesville, Ohio, the section that is the heart of the film in many ways. Not only does it contain the single most touching image—Ellison watching some home movies of his childhood, tearing up at the sight of his father—but it also provides some insight into the Ellison's famously querulous nature. He dealt with a lot of anti-Semitism growing up, and one of the results, as Ellison himself acknowledges, is that he cannot stand feeling as though he's being ridiculed; that simple fact underlies many of the actions that make up the Ellison myth. A publisher cheating him, a television producer making suggestions about a script that he hasn't even read, someone rewriting his work—Ellison will take that sort of stuff personally, and the reaction is likely to be dialed up to eleven.
Now, Ellison has his share of detractors, and some of them probably have legitimate grievances. If someone mailed me a dead gopher, I'd be pretty pissed myself. They may view this film as an attempt to justify Ellison's behavior, either by saying "Well, he's a great artist, and we forgive just about anything if the guy's got enough talent," or "Poor thing, he's just the product of the terrible persecution he endured as a boy." Bullshit. The film is by no means an apology for Ellison; but if a man is the sum of his parts, then he is a sum of all of his parts, not just the bad ones. Thanks to the masterful editing of Randall Boyd, we get the good as well as the bad. Amidst the archival footage and interviews, we see Ellison in his natural habitat—talking with fans, eating pizza with Neil Gaiman, waxing poetic about Los Angeles, working on the set of "The Discarded" (a short story of his adapted for the Masters of Science Fiction series in which Ellison has a cameo), having dinner with friends. In those settings, you get a better understanding of Ellison the person.
I'll grant that it's hard to reconcile the various images of Ellison; but then again, try distilling your own life and career into two hours and see how far you get. A few scenes, for me, at least, help fit the pieces together. In one, Ellison reads the opening of his account of the March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 ("From Alabamy, with Hate"); Ellison marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It catches my attention partly because I'm from Alabama, but mainly due to the last sentence: "And if you weren't there marching beside us, go screw yourself." Ellison has a long history of activism; the film includes several clips from the '60s through the '80s, and it becomes clear that much of Ellison's ire and stems from a perception that people have become almost willfully ignorant (the sequence dovetails neatly with a discussion of fandom from earlier in the film), and that such people have, in effect, abdicated their responsibility to the world as well as to themselves. Ellison's reaction to the placidity has been to adopt an "angry young man" mode of speaking, writing, along with a mode of behavior designed to challenge that placid state and knock the reader/audience out of complacency; Neil Gaiman, author of The Sandman and Coraline, perhaps puts it best when he talks about the ongoing piece of performance art that is Harlan Ellison.
The other sequence that sticks in my head is an interview with Josh Olson, who adapted the screenplay for A History of Violence. Olson reads an inscription from Ellison in one of his books. It goes way past the simple "with best wishes for your career," and it brings out another important side of Ellison—the man who passionately encourages and champions new writers, whether by running a writers workshop or simply by singing their praises to the four winds. It's the flipside of the previous paragraph—if you're stuck in your own little world, Ellison feels obligated to smack you upside the head, Cher-like, and yell, "Snap out of it!" If you're already engaged in the world, he feels equally obligated to provide his own special brand of encouragement, to make sure you don't backslide. (Note: That's mainly an inference on my part; make of it what you will.)
The film doesn't spend a lot of time discussing or analyzing Ellison's works from a literary standpoint—the work is used more to illustrate various aspects of Ellison's personality. In fact, most of the transitions in the film are made via Ellison reading his work, always a selection that complements the next segment. He has a strong dramatic delivery, aided by evocative CGI backgrounds.
Additional readings are provided as extras. Sadly, only one reading, "Prince Myshkin, and Hold the Relish" is complete; the others are but excerpts. You a get a feel for Ellison's way with words, but the power of the works is diminished. The excerpt from "The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World," a sequence of savage violence, is a pivotal moment in the story, but it's from the middle of the story. Furthermore, that story is itself a sequel to "A Toy for Juliette" by Robert Bloch—the result is that a newcomer to Ellison has absolutely no context with which to approach the material. There probably is no easy way to ease someone into his work, but still, if the goal of the excerpts was to introduce people to Ellison's work, one or two more complete works would be preferable.
Technically, the disc is solid. The picture is sharp and free from blemishes (some of the archival footage shows it age. The stereo audio track is clear; even the archival footage is clear. Only a few convention scenes are a little difficult to understand, due to the distance between Ellison and the camcorder. You can also appreciate Richard Thompson's original score, a lovely series of jazz guitar pieces. The disc also offers a strong set of extras: A mini documentary of the 2007 premiere of DWST, including a Q&A session, and a roughly 30-minute clip of Ellison and Neil Gaiman eating pizza and reminiscing.
One of the final sections of Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth revolves around Ellison's wife Susan, whom he married in 1986. All of Ellison's friends agree that she has been a calming influence in his life, and their stories can't help but bring a smile. For if the angriest young man can find love and happiness (if not serenity), surely there is hope for the rest of us. In any event, the documentary offers an insightful, entertaining look at a charming, caustic, warm, vindictive, witty, ill-tempered guy who just happens to be one of the best writers of our time.
So I'm rewatching, taking some notes, and my wife starts watching, mainly to figure out who the hell this guy is who wrote all those freaking books that her whacked-out husband has on the shelves. When she sees the inside of Ellison's house, walls covered with pictures, shelves overflowing with books, tapes, CDs, collectibles (They really should have used the inside of his house as the model for the library in The Name of the Rose), she turns to me and says "That's exactly what your house would look like if you weren't married." Apart from that, she has only chuckled over various exploits (being particularly impressed with the dead gopher).
As the credits roll, I look over. "So what do you think?"
She gives a little shrug. "I guess I'm gonna have to read some of his stuff now."
Sounds like a "Not Guilty" to me.
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