By David Loftus
May 6, 2007
When the screening ended, the crowd leapt to its feet to applaud and cheer the subject of the newly-completed (or rather, nearly-completed) documentary. Characteristically, but good-naturedly, he shouted: “Stop! Stop! I’ll only say something that’ll alienate you later!”
On Thursday, April 19, “Dreams with Sharp Teeth,” a new film by the producers of Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man,” received its first public screening at the Writers Guild Theatre in Los Angeles.
The audience included Herzog, guitarist Richard Thompson (whose lively acoustic tunes graced the soundtrack), Josh Olson (Academy Award-nominee for the screenplay of “A History of Violence”), Ron Moore (creator and executive producer of the current “Battlestar Galactica” series), Dark Horse Comics publisher Mike Richardson, Len Wein (creator of Swamp Thing for DC Comics and Wolverine for Marvel), and of course the subject of the film: Harlan Ellison.
Billed as “An Unruly Evening with Harlan Ellison” (though anyone familiar with his reputation would know the phrase is a redundancy), the event promised a Q&A with Ellison and Olson after the film. Writer, director, and producer Erik Nelson said he intended the show to be a tribute and thank-you to its subject.
Ellison may be one of the greatest “unknown” writers of our times. Like that of Bradbury and Vonnegut, Ellison’s work was shunted into the literary ghetto of “sci fi” early in his career, though even at the time (mid to late 1950s) he was also writing pulp fiction, detective stories, westerns, and essays. One could better characterize his stories as fantastic (in the genre sense) or speculative. His considerable body of nonfiction ranges from political and social commentary to film, music, and television criticism. His oeuvre also includes an array of memorable teleplays (many honored by awards), screenplays (most of them unproduced, sadly), a couple of novels, and occasional comic books and graphic novels.
The average person on the street may not instantly recognize the name, but if you tell him Ellison wrote the most famous episode of the original Star Trek series – “City on the Edge of Forever,” the one where Kirk, Spock, and McCoy travel back in time to Depression-era Chicago, and Kirk falls in love with a Salvation Army nurse played by Joan Collins – the listener’s face will usually brighten. Some will possibly recall an episode of The Outer Limits that starred Robert Culp as “Demon with a Glass Hand,” whose script won the 1966 Writers Guild of America award for best teleplay for an anthology series. Fewer still may have seen a very B-grade 1975 cult film starring a then-unknown Don Johnson, called A Boy and His Dog, based on an A-grade Ellison novella by the same title. More recently, the writer has served as creative consultant for The New Twilight Zone and Babylon 5.
He made his name in the late 1960s and early 1970s with stories that had eye-catching titles such as “ ‘Repent Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World,” “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” and “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” His stories were startling, vivid, often violent and profane. The author clearly didn’t want you to look up from one of his tales and say “that was a nice story”; he wanted you to get angry, to quake with fear, to jump up and do something! His writing was a sharp rap upside the head.
Unlike many authors, Ellison is a dynamic public speaker – no surprise since his past includes side careers in stage acting, stand-up comedy, and nightclub singing. (That’s him in the chorus of the original 1953 Broadway cast recording of “Kismet” warbling “Marsinah, buy from me!”) Now nearly 73 years old, hobbled in 1994 by a massive heart attack and quadruple bypass, the fabled angry young man has slowed a breakneck pace of speaking engagements he made for decades on the college circuit. But he’s still the best advertisement for his own work, which publishers never figured out how to market properly and all too often left to go criminally out of print.
Ellison’s talents, gregariousness, and powerful ethics have put him into amazing company and pivotal historic events over the decades, from hanging with Lenny Bruce, Charles Mingus, and Steve McQueen; to a historic spat with Frank Sinatra and his goons (minimally chronicled by eyewitness Gay Talese in an Esquire feature) and a more personal beef with Barbra Streisand (who Ellison claims stole the entire tips jar when they were both singing at Rienzi’s in Greenwich Village); to participation in the Century City riots, barnstorming on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment, and Martin Luther King’s march on Birmingham. He also “demystified” writing by composing stories in store windows, and accepting ideas from others for stories to be written within a daylight hours deadline.
All of which suggests why a documentary about this “unknown” writer makes a lot more sense than one about a more famous, bestselling author such as Grisham, Steel or even King would be. Stephen King’s tales are striking and various, and he’s a thoughtful, charming guy (two hardcover collections of interviews attest to this), but Ellison makes a fascinating subject as a person, even if he had never written a word. Given a decent treatment by a documentarian, Ellison bids fair to pique the interest of viewers who have never heard of him and don’t give a fig for fantasy or science fiction. (Or reading, period.)
Nelson shot his first footage of Ellison at the typewriter (always an Olympia manual propelled by two fingers – never an electric, let alone a computer) for a March 1981 PBS segment, when the filmmaker was just 24. At the time he had no plans to make a full-length film. Over subsequent decades Nelson continued to film Ellison only now and then, pretty much from the standpoint of a fan, while he pursued his own career.
That path led Nelson through production jobs with a variety of nonfiction TV series (at least seven episodes of “Unsolved History,” for example) and more recently, documentary features (executive producer on “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man,” “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” and “Grizzly Man”).
It was only in October 2006 that Nelson realized he had collected some decent footage over the years, to which he could add excerpts from Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow Show” and other Ellison TV appearances. Plenty of colleagues and admirers of the writer, from Neil Gaiman and Dan Simmons to Robin Williams, Olson, and Moore, were glad to sit for Nelson’s cameras.
“Dreams with Sharp Teeth” was not entirely finished by time of the Writers Guild Foundation screening. End credits were not included in the print (they are listed below), and the director acknowledged having cut two minutes just the day before. He has since cut another three. But he pronounced himself largely satisfied with the result, and is actively seeking a distributor.
Moore, one of the screenwriters on “Star Trek: First Contact” and “Mission: Impossible 2,” author of many episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and a handful each of “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager,” launched the evening by saying a stranger might approach Ellison in a bar and ask: “You! What the hell is so goddamned important about you?” Only Ellison would have the chutzpah to address someone this way, Moore went on, so in the scenario Ellison would address himself. The reply, as suggested by Moore? “It’s the words, dummy.” He added, “This film finally provides a glimpse into the small parade that is Harlan Ellison.”
Early in the film, Gaiman echoes this point with the phrase “this huge piece of performance art that is Harlan.” (Stephen King once noted that Ellison has never drunk alcohol or tried recreational drugs and concluded, “Harlan’s drug of choice is Harlan.”) Of Ellison’s words, Gaiman says, “You’re reading them in your head, and they sing.”
Although the documentary follows a rough arc of Ellison’s life and activities, at least two pivotal elements are placed early and out of sequence. First, California buddy Robin Williams comes on like gangbusters in the first few minutes, the better to arrest the attention of Ellison neophytes. The writer is “a combination of borscht and Berkeley,” Williams says. He recounts a laundry list of legends about Ellison – drove a dynamite truck? mailed a dead gopher to a publishing house? threw a fan down an elevator shaft? attacked an ABC executive, breaking his pelvis? – and the author responds as to whether each is true or not. Later, Ellison’s escapades as a single guy in Hollywood in the 1960s and 70s are alluded to, and Williams cracks, “He saw more puss than a litter box.”
The second early scene-setter is a long take in which Ellison talks about a relatively recent tussle with folks at Warner Brothers who wanted to use some of his commentaries as extras on a DVD reissue, for no compensation. “I should do a freebie for Warner Brothers? What is Warner Brothers – out with an eye patch and a tin cup on the street? Fuck no! . . . I sell my soul, but at the highest rates. I don’t piss without being paid.”
The incident illustrates Ellison’s long and steadfast insistence on his – and any other Hollywood writer’s – receiving proper credit and payment for work done, in a milieu where ideas have long been stolen and labor casually elicited and/or used for no pay.
There’s archival footage of Ellison at science fiction and horror fantasy conventions, on Snyder’s show, being interviewed by youthful Tom Brokaw and Jessica Savitch, and “rapping” with college kids. One wishes his abortive appearance on “The Dating Game” (uproariously detailed in The Other Glass Teat, the second of two collections of television criticism, due for reissue by Charnel House Press within a year), or his searing splash on the Merv Griffin show before a hostile crowd and a bewildered host (also described, this time verbally, on the audio CD On the Road With Ellison, volume 2, from Deep Shag Records) had survived to be enjoyed by more viewers.
One of the most striking sequences in the film – because of his own reaction – is some grainy, black-and-white 8mm footage taken sometime during the Second World War, when Ellison was maybe 10, and copied onto a Beta cassette and sent to him years later by relatives. Little, gangling Harlan is shown walking in a sailor suit with his mother at Niagara Falls, and (typically) sticking his tongue out at the camera.
But there’s more. Ellison did not remember because he had watched it once when he received it and stowed it away on a shelf. But he brought it out for the filmmakers and, unbeknownst to him, they filmed him watching it with them. When he sees and realizes that it has the only image he has ever seen of his father putting an arm around his shoulders – though the film does not mention it, Ellison’s father died of a massive heart attack in their home, right in front of his 15-year-old son – Ellison tears up. (After the screening, worried that it looked “staged,” he explained the circumstances of what appears in the documentary and was assured by Olson and the crowd that it does not.)
The viewer also gets some random footage of Ellison yelling at other drivers from behind the wheel of his car, shouting at cars as a pedestrian, and just generally tossing out opinions, which he loves to do. Looking out over the San Fernando Valley from his home perched high above Sherman Oaks, he tells the camera, “The only smog is down in the valley, killing Republicans – I don’t give a shit about that.”
To help the uninitiated get the merest hint of the writing that everyone else is raving about, the filmmakers include several sequences – not enough, in my opinion – of Ellison reading from his work, with evocative graphics behind and around him. You can get a sense of this from the clips available on the movie’s Web site – http://www.creatvdiff.com/harlan_ellison.php – though unfortunately, most of these have not been included in the film. (Big extras for the eventual DVD, one supposes; I especially miss the excerpt from “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World,” labeled “A Dangerous Vision” on the above site.)
Though the film is clearly a loving tribute, it doesn’t skirt a few sensitive points, such as the one Ellison screenplay that made it to celluloid in 1966, “The Oscar.” Ellison has long accepted the fact that it turned out to be one of the worst movies ever made. Mention is also made of The Last Dangerous Visions, the third and final collection of groundbreaking stories collected from colleagues and edited by Ellison but still unpublished after more than three decades.
A friend ruefully describes him in the film as one of our greatest writers who is also an “alternately impish and furious 11-year-old boy.” (“Seven!” countered an audience member at the screening, to laughter). In the concluding moments of the film, Ellison admits, “if you had to live with me 24/7, you’d put a gun in your mouth, or my mouth,” and adds, “If anybody watches this movie and says, ‘god, what a mook,’ well, I can’t argue with that.”
World premiere and standing ovation over, Ellison clambered onstage with Olson, who tried in vain to interview him. As almost always happens, Ellison took over the process. Olson got maybe two questions into what became a half-hour Ellison monologue. Earlier this year Olson became the first writer to collaborate with Ellison on a teleplay — an adaptation of Ellison’s story “The Discarded” for the ABC mid-season anthology series Masters of Science Fiction, in which the author cameos as an alien. So he knew what he was getting into here and and apparently didn’t mind, even as his “interviewee” kidded him with “Jesus Christ, Charlie McCarthy never gave me this kind of trouble.”
Ellison’s dismissal of “the pusbag Aaron Spelling” went over big with a crowd consisting mostly of writers of one stripe or another. (“Did he die? What a shame. I have to go home and raise my flag to full staff.”) And his description of various forms of revenge he got on Streisand (“this harridan, this shrike, this butcher bird, this Jewish-American princess with a nose like the prow of the Titanic”) for stealing his song set as well as the tips jar way back in the early ’60s did not even include the earth swallowing up her townhouse in his story “Ecowareness.”
To top off the evening, an audience member offered to replace Ellison’s stolen $21 in Rienzi’s tips if the author could prove he was worth it by singing something. Ellison obliged with a stanza of a Shel Silverstein song.
All of this was captured by Nelson’s cameraman, Wes Dorman, who was still shooting on site. “Wes was with me [during the 1981 PBS shoot]” Nelson told the audience, “and Wes, I think it can be safely said it’s sort of a wrap now.” A 25-minute set of video excerpts went live on the above Web site May 2. If you watch it, you’ll see Ellison speak of how weird it is to watch a film about yourself, and he recalls the incident in Tom Sawyer when Tom and Huck watch their own funeral after they have been reported drowned. Later, Ellison wrote, “It was one of the most bewildering and petrifying experiences at which I’ve been an observer, in a long life bloated with weird and memorable experiences. It was like being a disembodied spirit, floating invisibly above my open casket, hearing what everyone…ANYONE…would say about me when I’m gone.”
So does this documentary deserve distribution to a general audience? I think so, and I hope it gets it. Given Ellison’s limited notoriety, it may initially prove a challenge to get people into seats at a general screening, but once they’re there, most of them will be intrigued if not captivated by the subject. “I think I would find it interesting if I was just going to a theater and watching it,” Ellison himself remarked: “You know, ‘gee, kind of an interesting, weird guy.’ ” Olson agreed, saying, “It’s as close to the experience of hanging out with you as I can imagine on film.”
At the post-screening reception, I talked with a woman who was not familiar with Ellison but had attended with her fan of a husband. She used a phrase that readily comes to mind to describe one’s impression of Ellison in person: “a force of nature.”
David Loftus first read a Harlan Ellison story collection (Deathbird Stories) in 1975 as a high school sophomore in Coos Bay, Oregon; interviewed Ellison by telephone from Boston in 1985; proofread and fact-checked Ellison’s Edgeworks volume 3 and Slippage in 1997; and is currently indexing the upcoming reissue of Ellison’s twin collections of TV criticism, The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat, for Charnel House. Otherwise, he knows nothing about the man and claims no responsibility for his actions.
Lead review photo courtesy of Harlan Ellison and Erik Nelson.
Review photo of Harlan Ellison and Josh Olson courtesy of Steven Barber.
Erik Nelson – Director, Producer
Randall Boyd – Co-producer, Editor
Richard Thompson – Music, Composer and Performer
Tom Ronca – Additional Editing
Amy Briamonte, Dave Harding – Executive Producers
Wes Dorman – Principal Camera
Kris Denton, Steven Miko, Adam Goldberg – Additional Camera
Dave Coulter, Glen Bates, Chris Aidenhead – Sound
Douglas Martin – Visual Effects and Graphics Supervisor
Todd Gallahan, Esther Lucini, Patric Martin, Paul Marengo – Additional Graphics
Douglas Martin, Patrick Martin, Tom Ronca, Tony Russomanno – Segment Producers
Jessica De Jong – Production Manager
Jane Pfeister, Lala Damonte – Production Coordinators
Colin Hatton – Post-Production Coordinator
Tree Falls – Post-Production Audio
Linda Callahan – Stock Footage Coordinator
Simon Tassano – Music Audio Mix
Jan Machalik – Gaffer
Joel Potter – Grip
Lorraine Martin, Cheri Minns – Make-Up/Hair
Kari Hunter – Script Coordinator
Cynthia Shapiro – Business Affairs
Footage/Artwork/Stills Provided By:
M.I.T. Lecture Series Committee
James Gunn and the University of Kansas Center for the Study of Science Fiction
Jacek Yerka, Morpheus International
NBC News Archives
Sabucat Productions, Inc.
Keith Addis, Neil Gaiman, Josh Olson, Rebecca Spencer
Appearances by: Robin Williams, Neil Gaiman, Dan Simmons, Ron Moore, Peter David, Michael Cassutt, Stu Levin, Marty Shapiro, Richard Curtis
Archival Footage includes: Tom Snyder, Tom Brokaw, Jessica Savitch