In a 1978 essay, Harlan Ellison enumerated what he deemed “The 3 Most Important Things in Life”: Sex, Violence, and Labor Relations. Such a succinct list doesn’t encompass all of the writer’s many facets — Ellison the political activist, Ellison the anti-anti-intellectual, Ellison the (self-described) angry Jew — but it’s a start. At very least, it’s an indication to those uninitiated into the man’s verbose, ornery omniverse that Ellison is a good deal more than what he is most known to be: a writer of what he calls “imaginative literature” (but what most everyone else knows as “sci-fi”).
Indeed, Erik Nelson‘s film biography of Ellison, “Dreams with Sharp Teeth,” takes great pains to establish the scope of Ellison’s world, from his humble middle-class upbringing as a bullied Jewish-American pipsqueak in small-town Ohio to his current situation, acting as a reluctant Delphic oracle to legions of SF fanboys (and girls) from his bizarre mansion (known as “The Lost Aztec Temple of Mars”) above the San Fernando Valley.
In charting Ellison’s biography, his enormously prolific writing career (comprising some 2,000 published stories, dozens of film and TV writing credits, a handful of nonfiction collections), and the many preposterous rumors surrounding both, Nelson enlists the usual retinue of friends and associates, famous, non-famous, and infamous, including writer Neil Gaiman, “A History of Violence” screenwriter Josh Olson, “Battlestar Gallactica” (the new one) creator Ron Moore, and Robin Williams.
But Nelson, who has been filming Ellison since 1981, has his true star in the author himself, who is legendary amongst his contemporaries for his voluble anger — about television (about which he wrote his book “The Glass Teat“), writers’ fees, stupidity, and even his geeky fans, whom he largely resembles in all but his fierce engagement with liberal politics. (Rumors of Ellison, who is otherwise diminutive and non-threatening, throwing an enemy down an elevator shaft are untrue, but not as unimaginable as the more substantiated claims about his bedding several hundred women.) In wonderfully dated archival TV interviews with Toms Snyder and Brokaw, contemporary conversations with celebrity friends, and sequences of the writer reading from his works in front of somewhat silly but not distracting green-screen effects, Ellison comes across as an unstoppable torrent of knotty adjectives and well-aimed curses.
If there is a criticism to be lobbed at Nelson’s judicious but otherwise highly entertaining tribute, it’s that it too often plays the role of the fawning, autograph-hungry fanboy, willing to accept all of the abuse Ellison wishes to hurl at it. The film begins to wander in its final act, becoming a bit repetitive as it seems incapable of closing the Pandora’s Box of Ellison’s mouth, which continues to spew mots justes and expletives alike past even the end credits. Ellison himself concedes that he is a difficult man to live with, and 96 minutes with him will confirm this (even if his fifth wife, Susan, rarely speaks or appears onscreen to do so herself).
But what would a film about Ellison be without the Voice of Ellison, garrulous and piercing, limitlessly irate and obscene, and peppered with words like “pinhead” and “bugfuck”? Perhaps any qualms one may have with “Dreams with Sharp Teeth” are attributable to how fully it conveys its subject’s tone, with all its tangents, floridity, and vitriol. That this tone remains incisive, funny, and even occasionally inspiring is itself remarkable, especially as its source is a practitioner of a literary genre whose credibility many still question. But if the literary worth of Ellison’s huge output is a debate left untouched by the film, Nelson still makes a great case for Harlan Ellison as more of a personality, a cultural force, than a mere writer — of “imaginative literature” or of “sci-fi,” as you prefer.