Harlan Ellison makes me feel guilty for being a writer - or at the very least, for calling myself one. He’s the true scribe, the real deal, the madman Muhammad Ali of letters. Whether it’s sci-fi, or speculative fiction, or imaginative literature (his preference tends to change over time), Ellison is the standard bearer for the genre and the hateful curve breaker, the smartest kid in the class and the smart-assiest man on the planet. He has every right to be arrogant, pissy, and proud. He’s won numerous awards, crafted classic pieces of prose and commentary, lived the life that dozens of lesser men would kill for, and still finds the time to complain almost constantly about the world around him - and with good reason. In a society slowly fading into a cloud of self-inflicted illiteracy, he’s the last intellectually angry man. In essence, he’s reason in a universe racked with conformity, insipidness, and ennui.
So why does he inspire such shame in yours truly? Certainly, it has little to do with his prodigious output or cantankerous cultural perspective. It has nothing to do with the tall tales and legends legitimized as part of his already amazing history. There is no connection to his recent lack of product, since it’s crystal clear the man works when he wants and feels like it. In fact, there is nothing in the stunning, spellbinding documentary Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth, that fuels said feelings of inadequacy. No, it’s like standing in the presence of the Pope and recognizing that you will never be as pious, or well-placed, as this idolized man of the cloth. And when you consider this raging Atheist’s religion is words, the lack of faith is infinitely frustrating.
On screen, Ellison is a mesmerist. Director Erik Nelson, best known for his historical TV documentaries and producing Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, does a very smart thing here. In true talking head style, he keeps the camera centered squarely on the author. Even better, in between the ample anecdotes, he has him read from his amazing works. Whether its real life reminiscences of his time spent as a child in Ohio, or allegorical brilliance ala “Repent Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman, UK author Neil Gaiman says it best when he calls everything Ellison does part of an elaborate “performance art” - with the creation known as ‘Harlan Ellison’ at the very center. There are times when you wonder whether one man can be this confrontational, this candid…this creative. And then there are moments when you wonder why other artists don’t follow his lead.
Nelson moves us through the basics of the Ellison mythology - the brutalized and bullied youth, the teen wanderlust that saw him migrate between school and odd jobs around North America, the college professor who dismissed his talent outright, the move to New York and into legitimate publishing. And all the while, we sit and stare in awe. This is just one man yet his life has contained so much adventure within his carefully measured time on this planet that it’s astounding - and Dreams with Sharp Teeth barely scratches the surface. Of course, there’s much more - some of it discussed (the Star Trek issue, The Oscar debacle), much of it missing. Indeed, the numerous love affairs and personal falling outs he’s had over the decades are swept under the rug and left to biographers and bellyachers to tackle and tame. Yet Nelson does touch on his tenuous legal battles, one of which (against AOL) nearly bankrupted him.
Like any great propagandist, Ellison wants to make sure we get his side of the story - and his side alone. One imagines a ban on naysayers being part of his contractual obligation to participate. Of course, he would probably argue that few if any stepped up to the challenge. Granted, he has outlived many of his staunchest critics, but there are some who will still take him to task. Having them present would have provided a buffer to a few of the more egregious backslappings. Ellison is painted in a troubling light more than once (a standoff with a college kid at M.I.T. combines the best of his curse-laden ranting and post-paternal instincts), but he’s never put in the same critical light as others he lambasts. Sure, Gaiman can give a cursory quip meant to knock him down a notch, or childhood friends can undercut his outcast claims, but Ellison is his own best defense. Instead of using truth, however, he removes slander by merely amplifying the war of words.
This is why the question of his posthumous legacy gets continual play here. Some see Ellison - rightfully so, it must be said - as being one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, someone who took genre fiction and “fixed” it, forever yanking it away from the obsessive and giving it to the learned and the literate. His short stories sing with undeniable imagination, and the more formal aspects of his craft transcend teaching to become something akin to magic. But there are those who infer that Ellison could be so much more - more famous, more accepted, more mainstream - if he just didn’t spout off so often. The man himself concedes to some of this critique, arguing that his own personal demands and desire to have things “his way” burns more bridges than it builds. Still, he’s not about to change his well-earned cynic’s spots to suit an ever dimming media demographic.
So the reason I feel guilty about being a writer is all but manifest in Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth. I will never have this man’s integrity - be it well earned or abjectly coerced. I will never have his talent - his is a muse so rare it rates its own level of attention and wonder. I will never see his type of career arc - he was born at the right time, his rambunctious vitriol a perfect antidote to ‘50s conformity, ‘60s radicalism, ‘70s pop psychology, and ‘80s corporate greed. And when I pass from this planetary realm, I will never be remembered as reverently or justifiably as he. Perhaps I don’t deserve any of it. So I call myself a writer and, for what it’s worth, recommend this remarkable and absorbing cinematic statement. As documentaries go, it’s a brilliant distillation of a figure of almost impossible scope. Here’s hoping it opens Ellison up to a whole new audience - and here’s knowing that they won’t be ready for him.