The (science) fiction of Harlan Ellison
A film about Harlan Ellison draws a very different crowd than the man himself. At speeches, booksignings and conventions, the crotchety sci-fi legend is met with crowds of drooling Trekkies and idolatrous nerds. But at a Revolve Film Festival screening of Dreams With Sharp Teeth: A Film About Harlan Ellison last Thursday at the Weatherspoon Art Museum, there was an audience of middle-aged couples, adult hipsters and only a few college students. Ironically, the documentary is catching cultural recognition that the man has for 50 years — intentionally and unintentionally — somewhat missed. Indeed, the film is much more palatable than the man. Directed by the producer of Grizzly Man, Erik Nelson, Dreams With Sharp Teeth is dapper and stimulating, with narration by Robin Williams and a kicking acoustic soundtrack. Nelson includes footage and interviews with Ellison dating back to 1981, when he first filmed the author for a never-aired segment on PBS. The film has been a hot item on the festival circuit since its first public screening in April 2007 at the Writers Guild Theatre in Los Angeles. And that is what has brought out most of the Greensboro audience. In other words, most of them aren’t geeks. They might know of Ellison, but not the depth and breadth of his work. In the past 50 years he has written 75 books and written or edited more than 1,700 stories and essays, along with two dozen teleplays and a dozen motion pictures. These include the screenplay to the famous “Star Trek” story “The City on the Edge of Forever” and classic episodes from “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits.” He also edited a bestselling collection of new and controversial stories by science fiction writers called Dangerous Visions. It’s not surprising that certain elements of Ellison seem to be missing from the arthouse film. I’ll admit that I didn’t know what those elements were before watching the film. But the idea is that he is an explosive, prophetic writer and a confrontational celebrity. Unfortunately, the film talks about Ellison’s stories, without showing us the stories. We also learn about his offensive attitude, without having the opportunity to be offended. Never before has it been so easy to look at Ellison without him staring back. In one clip from a science fiction convention in the ’80s, Ellison abruptly cuts off a question from the audience. The scrawny college questioner recovers from the interruption: “You know where I was going?” Ellison frowns with exasperation. “Yeah yeah. I know where you went. Look.” Ellison walks off the stage and into the audience, right up to the student, and asks: ”Do you really consider yourself a braindead idiot?” The student replies, “Yes sir I do.” Ellison replies with frustration, “Look, you’re not not a braindead idiot….” His only confrontation with us, the audience, is a black-screen voice over at the start of the movie. Ellison grumbles, “Get this fucking thing over with so I can get back to my life.” The best moments of the documentary are the few short scenes of Ellison reading his work. Nelson slips these in
between interviews.There is a magical transformation in these scenes, from the glib,cranky Jew to a dazzling, lyrical prophet. He spews confession in placeof gripe, and legend in place of anecdote. In a reading from his 1965story, “’Repent Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” Ellison’s voiceswitches back and forth from the panicked, human Harlequin to therelentless, domineering Ticktockman. Maybe the bestachievement of the film will be to get people to read Ellison’s books.There was at least one person in the audience, however, who had readEllison’s work. That was the projectionist, Steve Jarrett. He was theone who suggested the movie to Revolve’s director, Shalini Chatterjee.A longtime Ellison fan, Jarrett was aware of the film, especially whenit began to receive glowing reviews around the country. “I hadhoped for a long time that someone would use his work and career as asubject for a film, because it’s such a rich subject matter. He’s notonly an accomplished writer but also a bit of a character,” Jarrettsaid. Jarrett points to the many sides of Ellison — non-fiction,fiction, public and private — as a source of power for his writing. “Whenhe exposes a lot of personal information in his writing, that makesfans try to relate to him on a personal level, and reasonably he backaway. That tension energizes his work.”
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