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Friday 6 June 2008

"All the Truths That Are His Life:
A Review of Dreams with Sharp Teeth"

by Gary Westfahl

Written and Directed by Erik Nelson

Featuring (as themselves) Harlan Ellison, Michael Cassutt, Carol Cooper, Peter David, Neil Gaiman, Stu Levin, Ron Moore, Josh Olson, Dan Simmons, and Robin Williams

Official site: Creative Differences

When people evaluate a documentary, their most common mistake is to focus on its topic and not its artistry; hence, with depressing regularity, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestows its Best Documentary Oscar on examinations of holocaust survivors, disabled people, victims of crime or injustice, great artists, and others who do merit one's admiration even though there is nothing about the way the film itself was made that genuinely commands attention. Wishing to avoid this error, I am determined to write a review of a new documentary entitled Dreams with Sharp Teeth, and not a review of its subject, Harlan Ellison. Indeed, while some commentary will surely prove inevitable, I would like to say as little as possible about Ellison, the writer who, by means of his habit of phoning and screaming at anyone who writes something about him which he disapproves of, has unknowingly done more than any living writer to promote self-censorship among science fiction critics. Believe me, three of those phone calls are more than enough for any man.

So, how should one praise, and how should one criticize, Eric Nelson, the man who wrote and directed Dreams with Sharp Teeth? Credit him first with the brilliant decision to focus on Ellison, for as anyone who has observed him in action will attest, absolutely no artistry is required to produce an interesting documentary about science fiction's most entertaining performer. Indeed, a ten-year-old child could put Ellison and some questioners in a room, point a camera at Ellison, bolt it to the floor, turn it on for two hours, and produce a hypnotically fascinating film featuring the consistently animated, profane, outrageous, and insightful Ellison responding to various provocations from the audience. Perhaps seeking to do justice to a writer renowned for his visual creativity, Nelson has worked overtime to fill his film with imaginative flourishes, but I am not sure all of this effort was really necessary, when he could have obtained more than enough suitably riveting footage simply by prodding Ellison to speak in front of a camera.

But Nelson wishes to do much more than that. Thus, instead of unctuous voiceover narration, Nelson cleverly knits his footage together with stark written captions in the characteristic font of a typewriter, the means of writing that Ellison has famously and stubbornly clung to throughout his long career. Images from photographs detach themselves, grow larger, and advance toward the viewer as they are discussed. Along with clips of Ellison at various times during the last forty years, he is filmed within his unforgettably cluttered home, driving through Los Angeles, and on the set of the episode of Masters of Science Fiction that he co-wrote with Josh Olson, "The Discarded" (2007), made up for a small part as a deformed mutant. Most strikingly, Nelson filmed Ellison reading excerpts from several of his stories and essays and created colorful backgrounds to match their contents: blue, watery animation for "Face-Down in Gloria Swanson's Swimming Pool" (1978), black-and-white snow for "One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty" (1970), and cutouts of standing people for "All the Lies That Are My Life" (1980). But the most effective sequence accompanies "Valerie" (1972): while Ellison likens emotional wounds from a relationship to a starfish's loss of limbs, one observes a large orange starfish in the background, its limbs vanishing.

Still, even the most doggedly inventive director of a documentary must at times fall back on one mainstay of the genre, the talking head, and my discussion of the people observed talking about Ellison must include my first words of criticism. Granted, for all I know, Nelson was restricting himself to the individuals that Ellison suggested, or that Ellison insisted on, but I cannot help feeling that the choices (regardless of who made them) were not always wise. Of course, to enhance the visibility of the film, it made sense to give a prominent role to superstar Robin Williams, and Neil Gaiman and childhood friend Stu Levin are equally defensible inclusions. But in looking for other writers to interview, I wonder why Nelson hit upon Peter David and Dan Simmons when he might have instead spoken with, say, Edward Bryant and Robert Silverberg. And to be purely parochial, it's saddening to see the tribe of science fiction critics represented solely by Carol Cooper, a reviewer for the Village Voice; I mean, there are people around who have written books about Harlan Ellison, like George Slusser and Gary K. Wolfe, who would seem better prepared to comment on his voluminous writings.

To contextualize my broader criticism of Nelson's work, however, I must digress a bit to generally discuss documentaries, which to some extent can be analyzed like works of fiction, since the process of selecting and arranging facts necessarily involves an element of narrative creativity not unlike the crafting of purely imaginative stories. Years ago, in one of my rare ventures outside my areas of expertise, I wrote an article about biographical documentaries of rock musicians; specifically, I set out to determine why one VH1 series of such documentaries, Behind the Music, was so hugely successful, while a similar series launched at about the same time, Legends, quickly vanished from sight. My conclusion was that the two series had different fates because they employed different narrative templates. Legends presented hagiographies, stories about amazingly talented and admirable performers who were destined to achieve astounding and neverending success the instant they ventured into show business; in Robert A. Heinlein's schema of basic plots, this is the story of the Little Tailor who spectacularly triumphs against overwhelming odds. Behind the Music offered cautionary tales of musicians who initially become rich and famous, make some bad decisions, experience a calamitous fall, hit rock bottom, and finally — in most cases — see the error of their ways, make amends, mount a comeback, and redeem themselves; Heinlein would call this the story of the Man Who Learns Better. (Lest anyone argue that the pattern a documentary chooses is dictated solely by the circumstances of the subject's life, let me point out that two performers — Tina Turner and Elton John — were profiled in both Legends and Behind the Music, with the second series predictably choosing to devote more attention to the grievous problems they confronted and overcame.) Clearly, the saga of a rise, fall, and return is dramatically more interesting than a repetitive pageant of glorious achievements, which explains why Behind the Music garnered impressive ratings while Legends was largely ignored.

If you are wondering what all of this has to do with a documentary about Harlan Ellison, suffice it to say that in assembling Dreams with Sharp Teeth, Erik Nelson elected to present Ellison's life as a hagiography. Granted, Ellison is such a tremendously talented and charismatic figure as to tempt almost anyone to take this approach — in innumerable respects, he deserves to be characterized as a saint. Granted, the documentary has a subdued chronological arc that does reference Ellison's troubled childhood and adolescence. Granted, Nelson does not entirely ignore Ellison's obvious failures and flaws, such as the never-published The Last Dangerous Visions and, yes, his sorry inclination to make angry phone calls. And yet, the overall story that Nelson tells is very simple, and very positive: even as a child, Ellison knew that he would someday conquer the world, and as soon as he was able to escape the circumstances of his upbringing and move to New York City, he promptly proceeded to conquer the world, launching a long career of brilliant stories and screenplays, stacks of awards, and armies of steadfast friends and devoted admirers. Now, one can assemble ample amounts of information to demonstrate conclusively that this is a true story; however, because documentaries as noted aptly illustrate Ursula K. Le Guin's point that "Truth is a matter of the imagination," I submit that this is, shall we say, a Legends sort of true story, and that while Dreams with Sharp Teeth is very interesting in its own right, it might have been more interesting if Nelson had constructed for Ellison a Behind the Music sort of true story.

I must proceed carefully now, since I have been accused of reviewing the films I wished to see and not the films I saw (yes, I bothered to read your stupid blog, just as I bother to read anything that mentions my name, though unlike Ellison I prefer to ignore criticism, which keeps my phone bills manageable). In dealing with a documentary, though, one might legitimately note that certain key pieces of data were omitted which, if included, might have obliged the director to somewhat alter his thesis. The point about Ellison which Nelson keeps dancing around without confronting — and a point which I believe even his staunchest friends would agree with — is this: due to his volcanic temperament, Ellison constantly does things which are harmful to his own self-interests and make his life more difficult. His triumphs have been more meaningful and dramatic than Nelson would suggest because they have occurred despite Ellison's own best efforts to prevent them from happening. He keeps throwing himself in front of the steamroller but, like Wile E. Coyote, he responds by simply peeling himself off the sidewalk and getting back to work, ultimately earning the respect and admiration of even those people he has fervently strived to alienate. This is the true story of Ellison which Behind the Music would construct.

And what kinds of omitted data would have brought this more intriguing portrait of Ellison to the forefront? Nelson places great emphasis on the fact that, in 2006, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America voted to make him a SFWA Grand Master, joining the ranks of writers like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Heinlein, and he includes scenes from the induction ceremony. He does not mention that, twenty-nine years earlier at another gathering of the SFWA, Ellison delivering a blistering speech, published as "How You Stupidly Blew Fifteen Million Dollars a Week, Avoided Having an Adenoid-Shaped Swimming Pool in Your Backyard, Missed the Opportunity to Have a Mutually Destructive Love Affair with Clint Eastwood and/or Raquel Welch, and Otherwise Pissed Me Off" (1978), in which he condemned his fellow writers as idiots in their dealings with Hollywood and angrily resigned from the organization, concluding his remarks by saying "This is the last time I will attend an SFWA function. I don't want the stench of failure on my expensive clothes." However justified Ellison's complaints may have been, this was manifestly a very unwise decision — to insult and walk away from a group of people who included many of his close friends, and a group of people who vote to give out the prestigious Nebula Awards for outstanding science fiction, such awards being something that Ellison cares about very much indeed (in a clip from an interview with Tom Snyder, Ellison is observed correcting him about the number of awards he had received). In a further effort to burn bridges, Ellison had developed the habit of insisting that none of his books could be published as "science fiction." And what were the effects of his stunning, ill-advised outburst? There were none at all. Ellison won another Nebula Award a year after this speech was given. He continued to be regarded as a member of the science fiction community. Despite his vow, in 2001 he did attend another SFWA function, at which he was surprised to be given a free lifetime membership to the organization he had once stormed away from. Five years later, the same organization named him a Grand Master. So yes, that 2006 ceremony was as Nelson shows a heartwarming moment; but it would have seemed more significant and compelling if it had been contrasted with, say, a fiery reenactment of his 1977 resignation speech.

Brilliant recovery from self-inflicted wounds, I believe, represents the true pattern of Ellison's career. He repeatedly behaves so badly as to render him, as he says in this documentary, completely unemployable in the film industry; yet he keeps getting occasional television jobs, most recently the episode of Masters of Science Fiction that Nelson observes. For over three decades he fails to publish the most eagerly-awaited anthology in the history of the genre and refuses to talk about it; but few people resent his inexplicable inactivity. He threatens to kill his friends; they remain his friends. During the last phone call from him that I received, he screams so loudly and viciously that I can hear his wife Susan in the background, urging him to calm down; yet now given an ideal opportunity to criticize him, I feel no desire to do so. No matter how many wrong things he does, one ultimately cannot help but praise him, because he also keeps doing so many right things.

So, I am most emphatically not arguing that Nelson should have made his film into a hatchet job on Ellison, featuring lengthy interviews with Enemies of Ellison and the like. I am merely suggesting that, if he had spent more time delving into the dark moments and low points of Ellison's career, he might have crafted a story with a more complex and involving narrative, and he might have rendered the hard-earned glories and highlights of his life more emotionally resonant. But now, recognizing that I may have unintentionally said something to arouse the slumbering beast, I must look into changing my phone number.

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