Moriarty Has DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH, All About Harlan Ellison!!
Published at: April 19, 2007, 12:17 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Anyone who works in any creative field will probably be able to rattle off a list of the names of the people who inspired them. I’ve written at length about some of those influences here on the site, but there are others I’ve barely discussed here, if only because the right context never came up.
When I was first contacted by writer/director Erik Nelson about his Harlan Ellison documentary, DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH, my first thought was “Oh, great! Finally an excuse to write about Harlan!” My second thought was, “I hope the film’s decent.” Harlan seems to me to be a difficult subject, and I couldn’t imagine that he would allow anyone enough control over a documentary to offer up an honest look at his life and his reputation and his work.
So it is a pleasant surprise to see that the film manages to embrace the contradiction of Harlan Ellison with open arms, celebrating his prickly persona while remembering why it is that we love Ellison in the first place: his command of language, the way he has always promoted writing as a craft, not a mystery or a divine gift, and, yes, the stories themselves.
If you’d like to get a taste of the film, you can check out the official site, where they have a nice selection of scenes of Ellison reading his own work. He’s one of those guys who obviously loves performing his words, and he’s great at it. He relishes it, something that’s not a given with authors. There are a lot of guys who are great on a page who just don’t carry themselves well when they have to do a reading. Harlan’s an entertainer, and if you give him a crowd, he’ll give you a show.
The reason the film works is because they also manage to get Harlan to turn off the public persona, and we’re offered a personal portrait of this man as well. By seeing him through the eyes of his friends and family, we get a better idea of who he is, of where the anger that has always been such a part of his persona comes from, and of just what legacy he’s going to leave behind as a person and a public figure.
I remember the first time I ever read his work. SHATTERDAY was the collection. The title grabbed me as soon as I saw it, and I checked the book out from the library, took it home, and worked my way through every one of the stories inside in a single long Saturday afternoon. There were a few stories that stood out in particular, like “Jefty Is Five,” which remains one of my favorite short stories in any genre by any author. But what really stood out to me was the overall voice. Ellison’s one of those writers who makes great storytelling seem effortless, conversational, no matter how tough the subject matter. He invites you in, makes you feel like he’s telling the story directly to you. There are many writers who have influenced me in one way or another, and there are many works of fiction that affected me when I was first exposed to them, but Ellison quickly became one of my favorites because of the range he covered and the grace with which he handled it.
I loved the fact that he was willing to write criticism even as he continued to turn out his own work. If you’ve never read his film criticism, pick up the collection HARLAN ELLISON’S WATCHING. Even if you disagree with his perspective on certain films, I’m willing to bet you’ll find yourself engaged by the way he approaches his subjects. Here’s a guy who never once pulled a punch, never seemed worried about what his brutal honesty might mean for his career. He’s never been afraid to bite the hand that feeds. THE GLASS TEAT is a blistering look at the television industry and the way people digest television, and it’s fair to say that Ellison has contempt for the influence that television has had on our culture. Literacy matters to him, and he’s been active in trying to promote reading and caring about words for most of his career. And he doesn’t just hide behind a typewriter, talking about how the world should work. This is a guy who marched next to Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama in the ‘60s. All of this is covered in the film, and it’s trying to fit all the puzzle pieces together that makes the movie so interesting.
Technically, it’s a solid but unexceptional film. It’s just not that kind of movie. It’s all about the quality of the interviews, the intimacy that the filmmakers have created with Ellison.
If you’re in Los Angeles this week and you’d like to see the film for yourself, and you’d like the added bonus of seeing it with Ellison present, let me tell you just how to do that:
Josh Olson, the Academy Award nominated screenwriter of A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, will be hosting the Q&A with Harlan, and he’s all over the movie. I know Josh a little bit from message boards we have both frequented, and I’ve started realizing something about hardcore Ellison fans, myself included. I think we all respond to him as an artist first, but also as a personality. I think we recognize something of ourselves in him. Yes, Harlan has a legendary temper, but it seems to me that the thing that ignites it the most is injustice, stupidity, malice or pettiness. I’ve seen Josh ignite when he was passionate about something, and I’ve certainly taken my share of flak for my own proclivity to anger during my time online. And maybe that’s why we find ourselves so strongly drawn to Ellison’s work. His personality has always been so tightly bound to the stories, and he’s always worn his thin skin proudly. I think this film’s greatest strength is the way it shows the man behind that legendary temper as more than just a sharp-witted bundle of rage. So often, we are judged by the worst details of who we are, and this film dares both fans and non-fans, the Friends and Enemies of Ellison alike, to look deeper, and to see him for the fascinating, complicated, valuable artist he is. Anyone can read the Wikipedia entry on him or Google his name and find plenty of people willing to take potshots, but this film offers you Harlan in his own words, laid surprisingly bare, and that's something I never expected.