Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth (Film Review)

06/01/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Harlan Ellison is one of my favorite writers. He is not as widely known to the general public as he should be due to his cantankerous penchant for biting the hand that feeds him: He seems to take perverse pleasure in pissing off publishers and antagonizing movie producers. Yet "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman, which first appeared in book form in his 1965 short story collection, Paingod and Other Delusions, is "one of the ten most reprinted stories in the English language." Harlan is a force to be reckoned with. And now, thanks to Netflix Watch Instantly, I can see him rant and rave whenever I want to.

The 2008 documentary film is Dreams with Sharp Teeth, written and directed by Erik Nelson. Watching this extraordinary movie is an experience on a par with being grabbed by a friendly lunatic (Robin Williams is in the film) and pulled into a wonderland: in this case, Ellison Wonderland.

Harlan lives in a big house, which he has dubbed "The Lost Aztec Temple of Mars," high on a hill overlooking the San Fernando Valley. The outside walls are covered with bas-relief carvings of strange images, and gargoyles hang off the deck. The interior resembles a magician's cave dreamed up by the likes of Ray Bradbury, another L.A. denizen and supreme fantasist. There is hardly room to move among the movie and TV memorabilia, hundreds of science fiction action figures, and thousands of books.

Harlan loves L.A. He says that unenlightened people often ask him, "How can you live in Los Angeles with all that smog?" He answers, "I don't see any smog. The only smog is down there in the valley killing Republicans. I don't give a shit about that."

And that's Harlan: abrasive, argumentative, combative, always angry about something. He is probably the most pugilistic author I know of. He doesn't take crap from anyone. When he adopts a moral stand, a tsunami couldn't move him. We see him during several speaking engagements before large audiences. "I am an atheist," he bellows into the microphone, stalking across the stage like a rock star. "I'm not an agnostic, not one of those wusses that says, 'Well, maybe.' If there were a God, by now she would have hit me with a bolt of lightning in the ass."

As many others have said before me, including Josh Olson (writer of the film A History of Violence) who appears in this movie, Harlan is the guy who made me want to become a writer. Back in the 80s, I read story after story, essay upon essay, soaking in Harlan's love of words and his smart-alecky attitude. After reading a couple of Ellison tales, I couldn't keep my hands off my typewriter. Seeing this film makes me want to go back and rediscover his magnificent oeuvre.

The strangest scene in the film shows Harlan sitting in what resembles a barber's chair while a makeup artist puts the finishing touches on a goiter the size and shape of a cow's udder (yes, teats and all) hanging from his neck. Harlan has been cast as an "angry mutant" in a television drama he has penned. While I am incapable of taking my eyes off that monstrous growth, Harlan discusses various aspects of artistic integrity, something he is passionately obsessed with.

In another scene not quite as bizarre, but still quirky, Ellison sits at a table in a bookstore window that faces the street. He has been given a one-sentence story idea in a sealed envelope, and as passersby stare at him in wonder, he proceeds to pound away with two fingers on his Olympic manual typewriter that resembles the one I used in high school. Five hours later, he completes a short story called "Night of Black Glass," which eventually appeared in his 1982 collection, Stalking the Nightmare. Harlan performs stunts like this because, he says, he wants to demystify the craft of writing. Authors are not magicians instilled with supernatural powers, but hard workers, toiling away word by word, line by line, to create work that they can be as proud of as a carpenter is of a well-made piece of furniture.

The movie begins with a pertinent epigraph, a quotation from Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa: "Writers are exorcists of their own demons." One of Harlan's demons seems to be his ambivalent relationship with television. He has won several awards for television writing, including a Hugo for "The City on the Edge of Forever," almost universally acclaimed as the best Star Trek episode of the Kirk and Spock years. Yet Harlan says loudly and clearly that "people are stupid because they have the handmaiden of television." He seems to hate the medium, calling it the "glass teat," but he can't seem to stop watching it and writing about it.

TV makes him angry, and Harlan thrives on anger the way a bee thrives on honey. But he takes that rage and processes it through one of the most creative brains on the planet. The result is a literary warehouse of astounding stories. One of his books is aptly titled Angry Candy, and lucky for us discerning readers, it tastes damn good.

Never repent, Harlan. Ticktock on.

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