“I think revenge is a very good, terrific thing for everybody” – Ellison on his turn-the-other-cheek-so-he-can-slap-it, life-strife methodology.
But, then again, without the anarchy and anger and angst (though he is often very funny in his ranting – not for nothing did he write material for his friend the late Lenny Bruce – see Ellison’s short story “Final Shtick” for more insight into their artistic modus operandi)…he simply wouldn’t be Harlan. When asked if he would ever give Ellison contentious subjects and then let him rant and riff on them, Erik Nelson answers that there was no need. “To paraphrase Winston Churchill, ‘Harlan is a bull that brings his own China shop with him.’” Though it must be said, going through life making enemies constantly is a pretty masochistic, sort-of-self-loathing way to live.
During the aforementioned three-point-five minute Warner Brothers/”Babylon Five” filibustergut moanologue, there is a very telling moment. At the three-minute mark (I know because I counted – couldn’t believe how long the writer was going on for) Ellison pauses. He’s just been ranting about burning down a PR exec’s house and whatnot. A trapped, circumspect, wistful look comes over his face, and he muses ruefully on even his wife Susan asking him if everything makes him angry, then proceeds to gets angry about being asked this. He says he doesn’t enjoy being angry from dawn until dusk every day (though I suspect he does, in a twisted way), and says that he would love to be as mellow and cool as some people are, only he’d be a “slave, one of the walking dead.”
Putting aside the irony of the man becoming angry when asked if everything makes him angry, this is a man who equates silence with death (although the occasional cup of shut-the-f**k-up shouldn’t really equate with The End, more with humility and knowing when to shut your mouth for diplomacy or sanity’s sake). Ellison has often said he is deeply afraid of dying before he tells all the stories he has in him. He glimpsed death first-hand very young, saw his father’s life cruelly truncated in front of him, and is not going to go gently into the Great Unknown without Having His Say About It. If you don’t have kids (which means you never have to fully truly grow up, in a way), as Ellison doesn’t, an artist’s work is their life-legacy, which makes it doubly important to them. Plus if you don’t have a father to explain things, or yourself, to you, you have to make it up as you go along, right or wrong and write the wrongs and rights…and maybe have others engage with and learn from the self-knowledge you have artistically earned.
The format for the documentary establishes itself very early on. Ellison reads a section from a short story or essay of his (I had read them all and found myself quoting along sometimes; I also have every single book in the documentary, even though they’re very difficult to find in Scotland. It was only upon seeing this doc I realized just quite how much of Ellison’s wordwork and worldview I had internalized over the page-turner years), chosen for content context by the director, and then there follows a raft of interviews about that particular part of the writer’s life.
Ellison muses on people who are made outsiders, and says his methodology for dealing with his own youthful pariahdom was becoming so smart he could kill his detractors with logic or their own mouths. There is some terrific footage of the storm-in-the-eye-of-the-calm man from the early 1970s, during the period of time (also of course encompassing the 60s) when he had been as radical and angry (for as much his own personal reasons for raging as any society-fragging ones) as anybody during that tumultuous uproarious social-change-driven period of time in the USA, a diminutive angry compassionate contradictory philanthropic misanthropic anarchist tossing wordriffs like tradition-sedition bombs at the Establishment, which got him on Nixon’s (s)hitlist. He angrily expounds on smog in far-flung islands in 1970, an environmental-concern riff which makes him look ahead of his time.
In other news. At one point Ellison half-facetiously confesses/boasts to Robin Williams of having bedded 700 women (lucky bastirt); whatever the exact correct figure is, it’s definitely high and abnormal. Makes you wonder what the writer’s wife since 1986, Susan, thinks of it – though I suppose maybe at least you could say he knows what he’s doing in bed! Ellison met the long-suffering Susan (who comes across as a well-bred English middle class woman) in Glasgow (25 miles from where I grew up in Falkirk) in Scotland (just as well you never got a Scottish lassie, Harlan – you might have met your match attitude-wise there!) when he was doing a lecture. She’s not in the documentary much, which is a specific decision made by the director.
“I wanted her to be more of a mystery woman,” Nelson notes. “Nobody but she and Harlan know why they ‘work’ – so why try to explain?” Why indeed try to explain why she stays with the man when he does stuff like throw her out of the house naked, an event which she and Ellison laugh about as their disconcerted dinner guests keep their thoughts on the topic under discussion to themselves? But man and wife are clearly into each other, and, as Robin Williams puts it, she brings light to Ellison’s dark, so…if ain’t broke, don’t fix or try to explain it, eh?
“Dreams With Sharp Teeth” doesn’t avoid its subject’s outsize ego, either. There’s some footage of Ellison on the set of “The Discarded,” a movie being made from a short story of his, that is absolutely, head-shakingly unbelievable. He is sitting in a makeup chair being transformed into an ‘angry mutant’ (typecasting?) and is talking about his vision for when he is hired to write a movie. He shoots the movie in his head and then writes what he sees, and hates when anybody else messes with his vision. Thus when a costume designer decides to change a teen girl’s cheerleader costume a bit, the angry writer snaps back at her “No no no! You don’t think, you give me what I ask for because I AM GOD!” You do indeed get the feeling that living with him (never mind actually being him) would be incredibly difficult and, as he says, you’d either shoot yourself or him after a fairly short period of time. He has a very litigious nature, too, but Nelson (who jokingly says that Ellison was “always” intimidating during the making of the film) didn’t want to get too specific with them because they would date the film. But one thing is for certain: You Do Not F**k With Ellison…or you Pay The Price.
The story concludes in Eternally Angry Eye Candy (Part 4)>>>