“Just shoot the f*****g thing so I can go back to my life!” – Ellison at the start of the film.
Asked about how he managed to get Ellison to do the documentary, Nelson says that he “basically asked him, always showed up when I said I would, and tried not to piss him off. I was also very, very well versed in his work and his many pet peeves.” He contends that a documentary hasn’t been made about such an important cultural figure before now because Ellison’s “reputation exists as a protective moat, and his cultural influence is more subterranean now.” When asked why he wanted to make a doc about such a controversial character (more on which shortly), the director says “Nobody else seemed to be able to (make one), and I thought attention must be paid. Everybody was quick to proclaim Warren Zevon an American icon – after he died. Harlan should be alive to get the credit that is his rightful due.”
And has the documentary been worth the wait? Absolutely. “Dreams With Sharp Teeth” is a superb accomplishment – it is, in turns, erudite, celebratory, intelligent, in-depth, illuminating, blisteringly funny, saddening, maddening, thought provoking and even slightly disturbing. And okay, yeah, I’ll admit that the previous line runs into salivating-hyper-hyperbole territory (more than) a bit, but it’s all absolutely true. It’s a great piece of work that anybody interested in the theory of perpetual motion and emotion, the instigator-agitator-commentator-mentor-tormentor, that is Harlan Ellison, will need to see, more than once.
The documentary starts out running and never stops. Ellison sits with his friend Robin Williams (and the thought of those two crazed hilarious razorsharp freestyle speedfreak intellects together in the same room is one that could rend the fabric of the very space-time continuum itself) affirming or denying rumors about him. He cops to mailing a dead gopher to a publishing house, and attacking an ABC executive, breaking his pelvis (in bizarrely humorous fashion, though the incident is not actually that funny); though he draws the line at supposedly having thrown a fan down an elevator shaft.
Be thankful for small mercies.
“Harlan doesn’t have an off switch, he doesn’t have a censor button. He is simply incapable of sugar-coating it for you. And I think that’s one of the things that makes him human, it’s one of the things that make him loveable, it’s one of the things in a way that makes him tragic. I think he wishes it were otherwise” – “A History of Violence” screenwriter Josh Olson on his friend.
But why all the gossip mongering, why does the rumor-mill grind so insistently and consistently for this writer? Well, as anybody familiar with the man and his work will know…Harlan is a 5’5” firestarter whirlwind dervish, a man who doesn’t suffer fools at all and will tell them that to their face. And has done. For decades. As his long-term friend Neil Gaiman, a famous ‘Harlanista’ interviewee (of whom there are a few and who Nelson says were “happy to participate out of respect for Harlan, when they knew the project had his blessing”) during the running time, puts it, he had an organization called the ‘Enemies of Ellison’ – and you don’t get that without living a certain kind of life. “Honesty, no cant, no bullshit, straight up, no chaser,” is what you get from the writer, says the director, and this is something about him that very much appeals to people. Or most people, that is, because Ellison has garnered a LOT of enemies over the years with his rantings and ravings and railings against all and sundry and back to all again and again and again.
But he no doubt wouldn’t have it any other way.
There isn’t much in “Dreams With Sharp Teeth” that will not be familiar to any hardcore Ellison fan, but this is only because we feel that we know the man so under-the-skintimately already. His writing is noted for its confessional tone and tenor, and over the decades the harlequin-cum-philosopher has laid bare his genius-cum-a*****e soul in a way that few people would have the guts or self-knowledge or artistic chops to do. Everything that he does is a “huge piece of performance art called Harlan Ellison,” as Gaiman puts it. And the doc shows it all and more.
Ellison was born in 1934 and lived in Painesville, Ohio, during his childhood, which is a deeply ironic town name considering the pain it would cause its sensitive, artistic Jewish dweller. As a child he was regularly beaten by anti-Semitic bullies, and took refuge in the world of books and movies and music. His father Louis Laverne died in front of him of a heart attack when he was 14, sending the inchoate writer into internal chaos and from being a straight-A student to a runaway malcontent. There is some very touching, poignant footage in the documentary of Ellison watching silent home movies of himself with his parents and crying, and it’s clear that his father’s death (as well as that of his beloved patience-tested-to-destruction mother, of course) is still something that affects him to this day.
In fact, you could say that it’s a large part of the driving engine behind the power and sound and fury of his urgent rage to live and write…and to rage and rage and rage. Seeing Ellison ranting is actually somewhat disturbing, especially to the uninitiated (took my wife Ellen by surprise), and it’s sad to see the man simply unable to help himself and going off on three-and-a-half-minute rants about subjects like Warner Brothers (admittedly an enjoyable-guilty-pleasure sequence the director says is his favorite in the movie). The bottomless depth of the man’s anger, and his inability to turn it off, is disconcerting. You look at him and wish that, at his advancing age, that he could finally find some peace in his life.
The story continues in Eternally Angry Eye Candy (Part 3)>>>