Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth is a wonderful look at the man and his work and, as Ellison agrees himself, is the closest you’ll get to know what it’s like to hang out with him. Whatever you may have heard about Harlan Ellison, this is a documentary you need to see. Harlan Ellison has filed numerous lawsuits and I don’t begin to take sides. The documentary doesn’t judge either. But, you most definitely can say, that the overriding legal concern is the rights of the artist and, for that, we can salute Ellison. “Don’t work for free, you should get paid,” is the central message here and it’s a damn good one.
Along with exploring what has contributed to the image of an adversarial loud mouth, the documentary keeps coming back to the work. Each time we get an snippet or expert of something Ellison wrote, like a classic work from “Star Trek” or “The Outer Limits,” we are given reason to want to learn more about the man. And the footage of him speaking with students back in the ’60s about social justice and global warming is insightful. There are hints too as to why Ellison may not have fully secured his place among writers. Some speculate that his personality has gotten in the way. Others worry that, along with his massive number of short stories and longer works, he should have written at least one big sweeping novel.
Any writer that has reached a point of looking back on a body of work is concerned about posterity and so is Harlan Ellison. This documentary goes a long way in clearing the air. Luckily, the DVD also has special features that round things out even further. We have a short movie that lets us see first hand Ellison interacting with an audience that has just seen the documentary and we see a lot of love and there’s another short movie with Ellison and Neil Gaiman. It turns out, these guys go way back to when Gaiman was a journalist and aspiring comics writer. Ellison looks over Gaiman and jokingly says, “You know, there’s something just a little creepy about a guy your age dressing like he’s still in his twenties.” Gaiman gives out a sigh, “I know.”
But the best extra feature is a collection of short movies that has Ellison reading from his work. I will close out with some brief observations about each:
The Glass Teat: This sounds great as a spoken word performance and offers insights similar to Marshall McLuhan, if he was really really angry.
Prince Myshkin, And Hold The Relish: What a delightful mixture of found art and literary criticism. Who knew you could find so many insights into Doestoyevsky and the human condition in the middle of the night at a hot dog stand?
All The Lies That Are My Life: What do you call writers who happen to write science fiction? “Sci Fi writer”? “Fantasy writer”? How about just say, “writer”?
The Silence: From a book of stories to accompany the art of Jacek Yerka. “Your spirit will kneel on the broken glass at the pews.”
The Resurgence Of Miss Ankle-strap Wedgie: A look at old Hollywood being gobbled up by new Hollywood.
The Prowler In The City At The Edge Of The World: A very bloody Jack The Ripper tale to accompany a similar short story by Robert Bloch, writer of “Psycho.” This one is a fine way to end Harlan Ellison’s performance art and leaves you, of course, wanting more.