Dreams With Sharp Teeth: A Film About Harlan Ellison, Dir: Erik Nelson, Opening at Film Forum, June 4
In one of his most straightforward magazine articles, “True Love: Groping for the Holy Grail,” science fiction legend Harlan Ellison signs up with a dating service—Great Expectations—which in the 1970s, was both technically cutting edge, and a cultural throwback. Utilizing five-minute video interviews, people were able to anonymously size up potential lovers and safely set up dates. Describing the process, Ellison says “even though I cut a very blunt and arrogant tape, [Great Expectations] was able to bring out the jellylike core of my being. All unknowing, I revealed the soft, sweet pussycat that slumbers beneath this wretched, obnoxious, contentious anthracite façade.”
Plausibly, that five minute dating video presents as clear a picture of Ellison as Erik Nelson’s belabored documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth, a project which has been off-and-ongoing since 1981, when a young Nelson first interviewed Ellison, and apparently entered the capricious writer’s good graces.
Harlan Ellison is a most startling mixture of media whore and litigious control freak. His continued involvement with Dreams With Sharp Teeth indicates that the film will be an off-color tribute to the man, a legend-making piece filled with archival interviews with Tom Snyder and other hipsters from a now-yearned-for-era, with just enough dissent about Ellison’s deepest nature to ensure distribution.
This would be fine, if Nelson had been able to craft a movie out of this passion and nostalgia. In the 25+ years since Nelson first toyed with making a documentary about Ellison, he enjoyed a steadily rising career as TV and film producer (highlighted by Warner Herzog’s Grizzly Man). Yet his approach to showcasing Ellison remains that of late adolescent hero worship. It’s a fitting tribute, as Ellison is touched by the loving attention in a way few successful authors seem to be. Science fiction writers have long had more face-to-face contact with their fans than other authors. Ellison has worked generally hateful antics into his public relationship with his core audience, and that has increased his credibility as an iconoclast. Time and again, he’s exploded in anger that could deforest the Amazon at the tiniest perceived sleight, but his moments of grace are quietly beautiful. If only Nelson paid more attention to them. When given the most prestigious award in science fiction, Ellison holds it over his head, with a far away smile, and allows the applause of the room to make him small. But the film focuses rarely on moments like that, instead walking down an LA street with Ellison (an obvious set up reminiscent of MTV’s The Hills—who walks in LA?) as he screams maniacally at passing cars.
The time wasted on scenes like that, and in interviews with Ellison’s always irrelevant friend Robin Williams, could have been used to provide the groundwork necessary to substantiate the oft-repeated claims of Ellison’s genius. Everyone would be served to read his best short fiction (start with “I have no mouth and I must scream,” “Paladin of the lost hour,” and “The man who rode Christopher Columbus to ashore,”) but still Ellison fights and courts a reputation as a mean-spirited, overrated horror. Even I start to wonder if perhaps this is a true estimation of Ellison after being subjected to Robin Williams (a mean-spirited, overrated horror if ever there was one) lauding Ellison throughout the film by screaming “that little Jew” in progressively louder voice.
There’s an unrelenting showmanship and completely unnatural confidence to Ellison that can never be turned off. It enabled him to bed over 700 women, but made him incapable of resisting the urge to count them and brag about it, even as he genuinely believed himself to be a proponent of women’s liberation. These and other exploits show Ellison as an asshole of exquisite humanity, but instead of exploring the contradiction, the film humors his shrill cruelties. When given screen time to read from his defiant story of heartbreak “Valerie,” and his revolutionary humanist parable “Repent harlequin, said the tick tock man,” Ellison devolves into a Borscht Belt performer. He divests the words of their resonance with a messy tremolo that telegraphs every punch line. The filmmakers undermine the excerpts further by projecting what appears to be a rave-themed PowerPoint template behind Ellison as he reads.
Ellison fights self-doubt throughout his readings and his interviews throughout the film. Inherent to being the subject of a film is that you’re important enough that you don’t have to shout. But Ellison can’t trust that, and the great unanswered question of the film is why not. The author bullies, bellows, and hoards in order to show himself as legitimate subject. Throughout the film he argues through lists: lists of the famous people who have sat in his chair, lists of his awards, and lists of the joys in his life, which are predominantly his deep involvement in left-wing politics in the 1960s (an involvement which has textured all his fiction with a complex morality that remains commanding even when preachy), and his loyal friends.
These friends, Williams excepted, make for rich documentary material. Sci-fi writers and directors like Neil Gaiman, Ron Moore, and Josh Olson are more familiar to Ellison’s audience than to the larger market and they give an intriguing picture of what happens when a choir preaches to a choir. Yet, the anecdotes they tell are genuine and warm in a way Ellison never allows himself to come off as, and it becomes clear why Ellison prizes his friends so thoroughly. The love and compassion of others is all that makes him (or in his mind any of us) human.
Companionship is always, at core, the drama of Ellison’s work. He writes almost exclusively of the loneliness born from connections that are close but somehow we can’t make. Better than anyone else, he shows how easily we can bridge that gap, how little it takes to move into kindness. Shortly into Dreams With Sharp Teeth, Ellison rants “Do you think I want to wake up angry every morning, and go to bed angrier every night?” Sadly, the answer the filmmakers give is a sly ‘yes’, more often than not showing the author as a jagged bore. Ellison should be thankful that his friends remind his public that Ellison hates himself more than any of us could, but often loves the rest of humanity better than any of us deserve.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.