I first encountered author Harlan Ellison's writings in Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine, when I was in high school. I enjoyed his "Watching" series of movie essays, and in fact I still do -- I have the collected book of them, and I sometimes reread them when I want to remind myself of certain things I like about film criticism. So naturally I was excited about Dreams with Sharp Teeth, Erik Nelson's documentary about Ellison that screened at SXSW this week. I wasn't disappointed, but obviously I was already a fan of the author.
The movie sets out to show you various facets of Ellison's life, without resorting to a linear biography. Various friends, colleagues and well-known acquaintances of Ellison talk about him -- Robin Williams perhaps most surprising among them, reviewing a list of the crazy stuff Ellison has allegedly done, and Ellison responding on whether the stories are true. Neil Gaiman and Battlestar Galactica producer Ron Moore also make appearances. The film also includes some vintage interviews with Ellison, such as Tom Snyder's interview from the 1970s. In between these stories about his life, Ellison reads excerpts from some of his best or best-known work. Ellison may be as notorious for his strong opinions and the fights he raises about them, as he is for his written work. He's not afraid to be angry -- deeply, publicly angry -- and the stories in that movie often center around that. Watching Ellison do whatever the hell he wants, however the hell he wants it, did give me a glimpse into the allure of being a cranky, sometimes mean, occasionally publicly enraged author. He does not want a single word of his scripts tampered with by directors, shouting, "Where were you when the page was blank?" His turns of phrase, whether writing or ranting aloud, are often charming while being brutal. I shook the temptation -- I prefer a happier and calmer life. Regardless, hearing him talk about writing in this film makes me want to write more fearlessly and honestly.
It's not the angry scenes that are the best in this film, but rather the quieter ones: Ellison watching the few scraps of family home movies that show his dad (who died in Ellison's teen years), Ellison showing us around his fantastic house, hearing about how he marched in Selma with Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965. I liked the stories about his childhood, although it seemed we spent a disproportionate amount of time hearing about how he'd been beaten up by bullies as a child. Is this meant to explain his behavior toward perceived bullies in his grown-up years? It seems too simple a comparison.
I would have liked to have heard more about Ellison's nonfiction work (Watching, The Glass Teat) since those are the works that got me interested in him in the first place. The impression a newcomer might get from this documentary is that Ellison has limited himself to speculative fiction, and a limited type of spec fiction at that. (Some of my favorite Ellison stories have been his comedies, like "Mom" and "The New York Review of Bird.")
That's the real question about this movie: would someone who isn't already familiar with Ellison's work have any interest in this movie whatsoever? I've seen documentaries about people I don't know well, but the film is so compelling it doesn't matter, and I'm able to learn a lot about the subject -- Moebius Rising, which I saw at Fantastic Fest last year, is a good example. But Dreams with Sharp Teeth is so all over the place at times that I'm not sure newcomers will be drawn into following it. Since I'm not a non-fan, however, I can't be certain.
Ellison was present after the screening, and at one point he told us that he was the kind of guy who you'd love to have as a dinner guest, but wouldn't be able to live with. Dreams with Sharp Teeth is a kind of dinner with Harlan Ellison -- if you already know him, it's a chance to get to know him better, and if you don't know him, it's an evening with an unusual and interesting personality.