Dreams With Sharp Teeth.
I've felt like Harlan Ellison was one of my people ever since I first encountered his writing, at the age of 11. I had to run downstairs and check my copy of "Harlan Ellison's Watching" in order to verify that, and it informed me that that first film review essay that I read by him was published in the July 1987 issue of The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction. That was the first issue I received when I subscribed to that magazine (through the Publisher's Clearinghouse, if I remember correctly. God, remember those big yellow sweepstakes envelopes? Am I dating myself?), and I was 11 that month, so there you go. Anyway, Harlan's exuberant essay style drew me right in, got me thinking, and got me laughing. Here's a choice bit from that first column:
"Woody, that brave little beast (as Moorcock once called your humble columnist), was the fauna (or was it faunum?)(what the hell is the singular of fauna?)(who the hell am I?)(it only hurts when I screw the electrodes too tightly, doctor) who saved all of us from the cockroaches, but to buttress my new faith in the human race you also have to thank the flora called Audrey."
I barely knew who Woody Allen (the Woody in question) was at the time, had no clue who Moorcock (Michael, author of the Elric saga, which I'd love in less than two years time) was, and understood that "Little Shop Of Horrors" was a remake of a 60s film but not who Roger Corman was. But I was enjoying reading these little rants, which, unfortunately for me, only seemed to make every third or so issue of the magazine. What really blew my head wide open, though, was his February 1988 column, which savaged both Mel Brooks's "Spaceballs" and the juvenile sense of humor (plus total lack of wit) of the sci-fi fan community at large. By now, I was 12, which certainly seems quite an advanced age when you're living in it but seems from my 21-years-on vantage point almost impossibly young. But regardless of how mature I really was, I connected with what Harlan was saying. I was tired of morons and bad puns too. After all, I was a 12 year old boy. That was the level of humor I was surrounded by. But really, I was just inspired by Harlan's pure, incendiary rage. I pretty much hated everyone I knew at that age, and though I would never admit it then (and probably wouldn't now, under any other circumstances), the real reason I hated them so much was because I was better than them and yet all they did was push me down and tell me I sucked. I was torn between believing them and knowing how wrong they were, and I still am. Harlan Ellison had a tremendously powerful literary voice, and the righteous fury that he expressed with it struck a chord deep within me. I'm not sure if it was he or Stephen King who first made me feel like I wanted to be a writer, but the two of them were definitely the first examples I had, the first two writers I unconditionally loved.
Since those days, I've moved through phases where Harlan is concerned. Sometimes I devour his stuff insatiably, and at other times I go for years without reading anything by him. I have nearly a dozen of his books, and I feel ashamed to admit I've only read a little more than half of them. But no matter whether I'm reading him that week or not, I always think when I hear the name Harlan Ellison--"That's my man right there."
The reason I'm telling you all of this is by way of introducing a documentary called "Dreams With Sharp Teeth," which was released last year and aired earlier this month on the Sundance channel. Of course, I saved it to my DVR, and as soon as I got the chance, I watched it. Tonight, I watched it again, my second time in less than a week. It's reignited a fire in my guts for the work of Harlan Ellison, reminded me of every reason that I loved him so much back when I was 12--and, really, still do.
I'd love to tell you that "Dreams With Sharp Teeth" is a brilliant documentary. It sure seems that way to me. However, I'm a particularly biased audience, and not just because of my Ellison love. It's also because I'm predisposed to like documentary films, regardless of their quality or subject. I'm a process nerd; I like hearing about how things happen, and especially about how artists and creative types come up with their work. Sometimes I feel a bit weird about this, like I'd rather read a book about how a movie was filmed or an album was recorded than watch the movie or listen to the album. And sometimes, that's probably true. Should I feel guilty? I don't know. But the truth is that I have trouble, at this point in my life, engaging with the work of Harlan Ellison, because I don't really do too well with short stories. I prefer a novel, one with a world that I can get lost in and not resurface until I've read the whole thing. Short stories want you to resurface in 10 or 15 pages, then plunge right back into a completely different world. That's tough for me to do. It's not really how my narrative imagination works. This is also probably why a lot of my Harlan Ellison books are only half-read; it's not the novels or the essay collections that suffer from that problem, it's the short story collections.
So then, of course I think "Dreams With Sharp Teeth" is brilliant. It gives me a look into the philosophy, the personality, the life and times of one of my favorite writers. It's a document of process, and of the little details that came together to form the character that Harlan Ellison is. And to top it all off, it actually makes me want to read his short stories. There are several spots within the movie, gaps in the narration, that are bridged by shots of Harlan reading from one story or another of his. All of them are absolutely gripping. That amazing voice of Harlan's, which came through in his film reviews so well that it grabbed the attention of an 11 year old boy (and hasn't completely let go anytime since), is present in his natural speaking voice. He reads his stories like he's speaking off the cuff, saying the words for the first time, and in so doing, breathes life into them that makes you want to stop the movie right then and there and go read the rest of the story he's just read from. I own several of them in one collection or another, and since watching "Dreams With Sharp Teeth" for the first time, I've located my copies of "'Repent, Harlequin!' said the Ticktockman," which I'd read before (and loved), and "All The Lies That Are My Life," which I'd never read before, and now can't believe I'd missed for the 15 years since I bought the collection in which it appears (also named "Dreams With Sharp Teeth").
God, I'm afraid I'm making a hash of this whole thing. I'd love to have some obvious, linear narrative in my head for this rambling appreciation of both the writing of Harlan Ellison and the documentary about him, but I don't. I'm just jumping from one thing to another willy-nilly, in whatever order they come to me. But hey, at least I'm writing. As some of you will no doubt have noticed, this has been hard for me to do lately. I've left this blog un-updated for most of the past two weeks, and before that, I was posting those short movie diary things that I write with almost no forethought. I haven't even done movie diary entries for the last two movies I've seen, and I think they might just get skipped. This bothers me on an obsessive-compulsive level, but I think this time I'm gonna fight through the compulsion and let it go. Best to just keep typing, getting out what's in my head and keeping the flow moving.
I was originally gonna write this entry last week, after seeing "Dreams With Sharp Teeth" for the first time. I had a lot to say, and was feeling inspired both to read Harlan Ellison stories and to write. Harlan always inspires me to write--that's one of the great things about reading his stuff. He makes writing seem both falling-off-a-log easy and set-the-world-on-fire important, and if I feel guilty when I don't write anyway, I feel twice as guilty if I'm thinking about what Harlan would say if he knew. I know, I know, like he would care what some 30-something blogger who has barely even tried to get published was doing... and yet, I feel like he would. I feel like he'd tell me that if I wasn't pounding on that keyboard every day, I was wasting my potential and my life. And he'd be right, god damn it, that's the worst part. I know I could do this every day if I could just fight through my own ennui. I've always got something to say, and the hardest part is always just making myself sit down in front of the keyboard and fire up the word processing program instead of checking my fucking email for once.
Harlan Ellison never holds back on anyone, and that's one of the most interesting aspects of his personality documented in "Dreams With Sharp Teeth." In particular, the first third or so of the movie is gut-bustingly funny, listening to Harlan tell stories about mailing dead gophers to publishers that fucked him over, and reading the riot act to TV producers who didn't want to give him his due (monetary, creative, or both). The man seems to have a vigorous love-hate relationship with everything in the entire world, and as he admits early on, pretty much everything makes him angry. His problem is that he has tons more intellect than patience, and not only can he slice through the world's bullshit like a hot knife through butter, he can't stand the fact that he's then left sitting there waiting for the idiots to catch up. This is another thing I love about Harlan. He's always been someone willing to stick his neck out for what he believes, to call out the rest of the world on their shit, and to let his ass get beaten if that's what's necessary to stand up for what he honestly believes is right. I could draw parallels to my own life, most efficiently to the time I got beaten up by 20 tough-guy hardcore kids because I "talked shit" about their "crew." I was tired of seeing people get beaten up at shows because they didn't know the right people. I was tired of watching a bunch of assholes intimidate an entire room just because nobody wanted to be the one to get punched. Harlan would understand exactly why I stood up and said things when no one else would, why I basically put myself on the line to take one for the team, to be the guy who got punched for saying things that everyone else felt but were afraid to say. Harlan marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama--you think a bunch of crew kids would have scared him? And you've gotta respect a guy who stands 5'5", weighed maybe 110 pounds in the prime of his life, and yet never backed away from a fight.
In fact, during the course of "Dreams With Sharp Teeth," it's this toughness in the face of all easily observable adversity that introduces the flip side of Harlan's personality--a deeply vulnerable sensitivity, that of a person who grew up his whole life being told he was inferior. He was a Jewish kid born in small-town Ohio in the 30s, back when anti-Semitism was pretty much the norm, and all the other kids in his class towered over him. Plus he had a big mouth, and the combination of the three factors surely sealed his fate where bullies were concerned. Maybe they thought if they beat him up on the schoolyard enough times, they'd cow him into submission. If anything, it had the opposite effect. The more shit Harlan had to take, the more determined he became to take no shit from anybody. He'd show them all what he was made of. And he did--going on to be one of the most respected writers of the 20th century is not too shabby. But then, in one of the interstitial bits, he reads from a piece he wrote when he was 35 years old, entitled "One Life, Furnished In Early Poverty." He talks about how he went back to his old hometown, having finally become the success that they always said he'd never be, seeing all of his old school bullies worn down and working dead end jobs. But instead of feeling vindicated in his triumph, the whole thing just depressed him. I can't really explain the feeling that he's describing in that short excerpt, but I sure have felt it.
I think maybe I'm losing the thread here, so let's just wrap this up. "Dreams With Sharp Teeth" is a tremendously engaging film, documenting as it does the fascinating life and brilliant work of an endlessly entertaining man. With the sort of off the cuff storytelling prowess Harlan displays throughout this film, not only in recently filmed interviews but in archival material going back several decades, it's clear that the movie could have been amazing even if all it contained were shot after shot of Harlan ranting, raving, and reeling off anecdotes. But there's so much more than that here. Throughout the stories of his triumphs and struggles, his fighting with fandom and extoling the virtues of other brilliant writers, his successful TV work and his many lawsuits against various major Hollywood players (check out the bit about him suing James Cameron and winning), runs a deep, unifying thread. Harlan's entire life is a consistent embodiment of his personal philosophy. This man, raised Jewish and now proudly atheist, has a fierce moral code, and cannot break it or allow others to do so. He's angry all the time, but he uses his anger towards a very noble goal--that of ensuring that he and his fellow humans are all treated fairly. Underneath all of his curmudgeonly behavior, he's an incredibly sensitive person, and he just can't stand to sit idly by, watch people do the wrong thing, and not do something to try and stop them. At the end of the movie, he says something about the fact that he's extremely hard to live with, and that most people would blow either his or their own head off if they had to. But then, as the credits roll, he tells a great story about a man coming upon an ant lying on its back in the dirt, raging at the sky. The ant tells the man that he's heard that the sky will fall. The man asks him what good his current course of action can possibly do, and the ant looks up at the man and says, "I do what I can." Harlan does what he can, and while he may not accomplish everything he wants to accomplish, he sure has managed to create an incredible body of work. Long may he rage.