Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth (2008, dir. Erik Nelson)
Featuring Harlan Ellison, Robin Williams, Neil Gaiman, Peter David, Ronald D. Moore
One of the first things you learn about Ellison in this documentary is that once he was so pissed with a television executive that he boxed up a dead groundhog and mailed it to the man. Ellison made sure that he paid the cheapest postage possibly so that it would take upwards of a week to reach the man and be sufficiently bloated and rotting. This is tempered with his friend Neil Gaiman saying that Ellison’s entire life’s work is one large piece of performance art. That it is not about his 1000+ short stories or numerous award-winning teleplays, but its about the cultivation of this quick-witted curmudgeonly persona.
For those of you not in the know, Harlan Ellison is an acclaimed author of literature both of the science fiction genre and not. He’s actually famous for calling the “sci-fi” abbreviation a “hideous neologism” that “sounds like crickets fucking”. Needless to say, he is a very opinionated man and any attempt to make a documentary about him is going to be caught up in his fiery and impassioned rantful nature. Ellison was responsible for the classic “City on the Edge of Forever” episode of the original Star Trek, “Demon With a Glass Hand” episode of The Outer Limits (which he sued James Cameron for ripping off to make The Terminator), and for much script work on Babylon 5.
The film focuses on exploring the history and personal philosophy of Ellison. It is near impossible to get the experience of prose across on screen, though the film attempts it by having Ellison recite a few passages from his more famous work against the backdrop of incredibly shitty lava lamp-esque green screen backgrounds. The more interesting pieces are of Ellison expounding on his personal beliefs. He his passionate about writers not being treated like second class citizens by the studios. Ellison tells of how he received a call from woman who told him that on an upcoming Babylon 5 DVD they were wanting to make an extending interview with him a special feature and he agreed, with the stipulation that he receive a paycheck. She replied that everyone else just said yes and did it for free, resulting in a verbal lashing from Ellison about how she and the others in the business side of things wouldn’t work for a second if they weren’t getting paid.
The documentary suffers due to the absence of any counter to Ellison. He is infamous for public spats and lawsuits and it would have given a interesting balance to the film to have a group of people who disliked the man. Instead all we get is fawning praise and admiration from people who grew up reading his work. Ellison’s writing is wonderful, and he is one of the best writers of the late 20th century. The film just hurts from not having those voices to temper Ellison’s oft loud and bombastic one.