The following piece was written by Brett Taylor, regular Paracinema magazine contributor. Most recently, his article Norman Mailer’s Underground Trilogy was featured in issue 18).
Twenty-six years in the making, Erik Nelson’s 2008 documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth profiles the controversial and never boring writer Harlan Ellison. A whirlwind of angry opinions and outrageously witty quips, Ellison is the most divisive figure in modern letters, a loudmouthed jerk or the most exciting and underrated figure around, depending on who you listen to. To the languidly jaunty backdrop of Django Reinhardt guitar tunes, the feisty author is shown dishing out colorful opinions on a variety of subjects, from declaiming his own atheism to lashing out at other writers (“a Petri dish” could write as well as Tom Clancy or Judith Krantz), to offering writerly advice on how to handle a troublesome Hollywood producer (“I’d get a garden hoe and bury it in the motherfucker’s head”) to simply shouting “Ya Douchebag!” at a bad driver. Early on the author is seen in a 1981 Today show clip composing a story on public display in a B. Dalton Bookseller window. He does this, he says, to show that writing is another job, like plumbing or being an electrician, and you could say his whole professional life has been an act of bringing work to the people, of shouting to get people to notice.
Ellison, who dabbled in stand up comedy, can be seen as one of the angry-but-funny commentators who followed in the trail of Lenny Bruce and Jean Shepherd, a category more associated with comics like Lewis Black and George Carlin than with writers of speculative fiction.
Interviewees include author Neil Gaiman, childhood friend Stu Levin, and Village Voice cultural critic Carol Cooper. Neighbor Robin Williams comes up with an insightful observation or two, noting that Ellison was “as radical as it gets” in the sixties, radical enough to earn a place on Nixon’s enemies’ list, but his insistence on comic shtick makes the participation of Cooper and Gaiman seem all the more welcome. This is actually the second Ellison documentary if you count a Sci Fi Channel Masters of Fantasy episode, though that one was much shorter.
Ellison is credited with such distinctions as writing 1,700 stories and articles as well as coining the term “bugfuck.” To Wiliams Ellison claims to have made it with over 700 women. Henry Miller only claimed about fifty.
Though the project was begun back in ’81, most of the interviews come from the last few years. Ellison has brought up from time to time a commercial he did for American Express, as well, which would be a funny thing to see, as would Ellison’s appearance on The Dating Game. More historically, a radio broadcast from the Watts Riots conducted with James Baldwin would have been fascinating to hear. It’s a shame none of this was dug up. Instead, we get Ellison crammed into a red shirt and unflattering photo graphed against awful computer backgrounds.
It’s noticeable that none of Ellison’s enemies are called on to voice their views, much less any ex-wives. Ellison told Salon.com that he suggested interviewing some of those enemies but Nelson turned down the idea. Ellison clearly knows the value of feuds for grabbing attention, but his director is less enamored of it. Writer Haskell Barkin, Ellison’s friend since 1962, says “we all know” Ellison has a tendency to exaggerate things, but other than that comment no one ever investigates the truthfulness of some of Ellison’s stories, some of which sound like exaggerations if not tall tales. For example Ellison has claimed to have written jokes for Lenny Bruce, though Albert Goldman’s Bruce biography claims the comedian only once ever hired a joke writer, one Burton Merle. Likewise a story about getting into an argument with a college professor has grown over the years into a story about punching the professor.
Other biographic avenues go unexplored. Ellison mentions he stopped speaking to his sister after his mother’s death, but doesn’t say what their dispute was. Instead, there are occasional odd digressions—Ellison’s eulogy for Theodore Sturgeon will likely baffle those unfamiliar with the late author. “Most of what I know about Ted Sturgeon I cannot tell you,” Ellison reads. Does he mean he can’t because it’s incriminating, or because he doesn’t understand it himself, or because he just doesn’t want to?
Calling booksigning an “odious task,” Ellison compares his fans to “the walking dead,” yet he is one of the most accessible writers around, in constantly (until recently) holding such booksignings and meeting with such walking dead fans. Ellison lambastes science fiction convention types as “utter wimps, twinks, flakes, and oddballs.” When he mocks their “flare for the bizarre,” it is an odd comment coming from a man who has made such an outrageous flare one of his own selling points. For Ellison, who started out as one of their geeky number, a self-described “pencil neck geek,” how much disdain comes from discomfort with his own past? Nelson, in a rare moment of directorial comment, shrinks the author down to size until he blends into a background of such oddballs.
Although Dreams with Sharp Teeth, which has aired on the Sundance Channel, will undoubtedly introduce the author to unfamiliar viewers, we are left with a colorful and entertaining documentary that nonetheless gives the sense that there’s a fuller story than is told here. Since Ellison is one of the most well-connected writers around, you wonder why he didn’t interview a few more famed writers like Ray Bradbury or Stephen King (perhaps the writer most noticeably influenced by Ellison’s get it on the page straight from the gut style). Ellison has brought more to the documentary than Nelson has, and it’s a good thing his personality is as outsized as it is, for it has to make up for the film’s shortcomings.