Dreams with Sharp Teeth: Documenting Harlan Ellison

harlan ellison slumped over typewriter 1964
The dreamer at rest: Ellison, circa 1964.

It was fitting to see director Werner Herzog at a Los Angeles premiere screening of Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth, a new documentary about famed writer Harlan Ellison. The job of capturing a figure like Ellison should go to a man who has documented a variety of obsessively ambitious figures. But while Herzog was there only to support his friend Ellison, the actual director, Erik Nelson (producer of Herzog’s Grizzly Man), is thankfully not middling with a subject of casual interest. The film, titled after the author’s omnibus edition, shows Ellison twice circa 1981, in an upfront interview and during one of many occasions when he scripted a short story entirely on display in a bookstore window. While such footage would be essential in covering Ellison, we are in good hands to know that Nelson shot the footage himself as a young man and has been documenting the author ever since.

Since the notoriety about Ellison has often taken attention away from his work, the film tackles the latter first with a Q-and-A between Ellison and friend Robin Williams. Ellison matter-of-factly affirms that he did mail a dead gopher to a publisher in vengeance (at the slowest rate possible, at the hottest time of the year) and has bedded hundreds of women. Nelson wisely casts aside the “myths” first, since these and others addressed later in the film have the potential to overwhelm the story of such an influential popular artist. Other Ellison tales include his extended, trying lawsuit with AOL over copyright issues (as the megacorp was deemed responsible for making his stories available free-of-charge and without payment to the author), and his lawsuit against director James Cameron, who failed to acknowledge his debt to Ellison when creating the Schwarzenegger hit The Terminator (1984).

Ellison’s fans can assert that his obsessive acts are organic to the nature of his work. The passion he brings to his public affairs stems from his aesthetic, one that he developed as a prolific magazine writer of short fiction by his early twenties. While the author’s well known for scripting classic science fiction TV–including beloved episodes of The Outer Limits and Star Trek–his fiction immerses readers in alternate perceptions. In his best work, he imbues a well-controlled energy, which reads as if his ideas are ripping loose from his imagination as we experience them. His language, even in a story’s opening sentences, is so urgent that we fear he will run out of energy, or control, by the climax. Witness the opening of “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (one of many pieces with catchy titles):

Limp, the body of Gorrister hung from the pink palette; unsupported–hanging high above us in the computer chamber; and it did not shiver in the chill, oily breeze that blew eternally through the main cavern. The body hung head down, attached to the underside of the palette by the sole of its right foot.

This description is so intent on illustrating its gloomy subject that the language becomes cyclical. It creates the surreal flavor necessary for a fable about machinery that has conquered man (a familiar theme, Terminator fans?).

In “Paladin of the Lost Hour,” a later masterwork, an opening description is so restless that it repeats upon itself to develop another hyper-real setting:

This was an old man. Not an incredibly old man: obsolete, spavined; not as worn as the sway-backed stone steps ascending the Pyramid of the Sun to an ancient temple; not yet a relic. But even so, a very old man, this old man perched on an antique shooting stick, its handles opened to form a seat, its spike thrust at an angle into the soft ground and trimmed grass of a cemetery. Gray, thin rain misted down at almost the same angle as that at which the spike pierced the ground. The winter-barren trees lay flat and black against an aluminum sky, unmoving in the chill wind. An old man sitting at the foot of a grave mound whose headstone had tilted slightly when the earth had settled; sitting in the rain and speaking to someone below.

With language that seems deceptively simple at first, Ellison uses labyrinthine narration to realize his extrapolative tale. He explores his character’s age to illustrate his approaching death, as he must find another to inherit his duties as a protector of lost time. While using a fantasy device–a stopped watched holding the world’s final hour–Ellison grounds his tale with the friendship and trust that grows as the new protector accepts the duty from the “very old man.”

harlan ellison and john olson on stage
Ellison (right) chats with Josh Olson (left) and the audience after an LA screening of Dreams. (Steven Barber, 2007)

Readers know an Ellison story by how its language handles the writer’s energy. If it were written in a shorter, clipped style, his exposition might seem like a brainstorm of ideas, a purging of content that can be better directed in A-to-B narration. But Ellison rushes the reader forward to create a trademark, madcap pacing. Like the short fiction of Philip K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon, Ellison’s longer stories read like compressed novels, which relate more than a story’s worth of information while implying more development within the dense lines.

Well into age, Ellison has brought so much enthusiasm to his public appearances that no doubt is left whether this man could pen such unique fiction. In documenting a legendary writer, Nelson makes good use of footage of Ellison’s feverish bookstore-window writing. As Ellison performs the act to debunk the myth that writers are “gods whose magic must occur in hidden castles,” we see the drive that contributes to Ellison’s narrative pace. Similar energy appears in talking-head interviews and interactions, where he teems with ideas and is always ready to take on the opposition. A sequence of interviews of the author’s friends, including noted fantasist Neil Gaiman and screenwriter Josh Olson (David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence), illustrates mostly futile attempts to describe Ellison; the series culminates with friend Stu Levin, who shrugs, “How do you explain a hurricane?”

Dreams intercuts its sizable serving of contemporary footage with archival TV spots, including Ellison’s appearance on Tom Synder’s Tomorrow. But the film’s upfront access to the grayed Ellison may be Dream’s biggest treat. Through excerpts of dramatic readings, viewers get a nice serving of the author’s fiction. Though we see the author at some bad moments–during a recent, undisclosed street confrontation, Ellison tells the cameraman to “Point that fucking thing somewhere else!”–he proves himself to be not as self-serious as many would think. Ellison unloads a humorous rant against Warner Brothers–the network attempted to include his filmed interview on a television series DVD without a fee–then laments his wife’s futile attempts to calm him. And a startling moment comes when Ellison reflects on his childhood. As he stands aside the images of a home movie, an image of him as a child with his long-deceased father appears in footage Ellison forgot existed. As Ellison fights back tears and quivers with passionate intensity, Nelson reveals the Ellison facade momentarily cracked open.

Mostly a contemporary portrait, Dreams presents Ellison as just a man with an enormous gift and the energy to have revealed it. To the tunes of Richard Thompson’s acoustic guitar, Nelson incorporates a warehouse of information without losing control of the film’s structure. Dreams never loses sight of Ellison’s unique character while celebrating his genius. It’s at once a gift to Ellison’s fans and a breathless intro for those yet to witness the “hurricane.”

More info and links

Dreams With Sharp Teeth will premiere at the SXSW Film Festival the week of March 8, 2008; the film will screen at the Film Forum (NYC) from June 4-10, 2008.

To view a trailer, clips of readings, and footage from the film’s premiere, visit the film’s website.

Order The Essential Ellison, the author’s career-length anthology, from Powell’s.

Visit Harlan Ellison’s virtual home.

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