More Than Meets The Mogwai

Monday, July 28, 2008

Demon with a Smith-Corona: DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH (Erik Nelson, 2008)


A Film About Harlan Ellison --

author of:
..."The City on the Edge of Forever" ("Star Trek" teleplay)
..."Soldier" and "Demon with a Glass Hand" ("The Outer Limits" teleplays)
..."Spider Kiss" (novel)
..."A Boy and His Dog" (short story)
..."Deathbird Stories" (short story collection)
..."Dangerous Visions" (s-f compilation, mastermind of)
..."Slippage" (short story collection)
..."The Glass Teat" (essential essays on the nature and debilitating effects of Television)
..."Watching" (film criticism)
...many, MANY others...

It’s been more than a week since I’ve seen the still distributor-less Harlan Ellison documentary DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH (2008), and even though it’ll be forever tied to a senseless, maddening offense for me (my car being broken into as I sat in the theater –- and if fate has a sense of irony, I’d hazard a guess that it happened during the sequence in which Ellison rants and apoplectically raves about how inane, meaningless acts of aggression make him so characteristically frustrated with mankind), I still haven’t shaken the more important impressions that these 90-something minutes spent in close quarters with one of SF’s (Speculative Fiction, that) most revered authors offers up.

The project was initiated, unknowingly, at age 24 by director Erik Nelson, a true-blue journeyman documentary producer best known as a key collaborator on Werner Herzog’s GRIZZLY MAN [2005]. Shooting a short segment for the Public Broadcasting Station, Nelson filmed Ellison in his cramped worked space in the early 1980s, pecking away at his Smith-Corona typewriter on a memorabilia-packed desk, cab driver’s hat adorning the top of his head as if to humbly refer to Ellison’s oft-mentioned aphorism that writing is a job like any other; hard work is hard work, no matter whether you’re digging ditches or mentally attempting to capture an eloquently, well-rounded phrase.

90% of the footage is from roughly twenty-five years later, with Nelson following the author around his city of Los Angeles (a transplant from Cleveland, Ohio) to essentially confirm the feisty Ellison persona we’ve come to know (and arguably love -- I know I do) from his myriad appearances on the college and talk show (a number of stops on “Tom Snyder”) circuits through the years. Surprisingly, the usual amount of bravado on display is non-existent in such sequences as the one in which Ellison plays the only footage of his deceased father (for more on his early life, read “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty”, see the “New Twilight Zone” episode that adapted it, and THEN listen to Ellison’s commentary on the DVD) –- his hard-edged demeanor remains to protect the calloused persona built over the years, but his softie’s heart can be gleaned; it’s a startling sequence, one that’ll mean more to anyone who’s lost their father before they themselves could mature and relate to/ask about any of their patriarch’s own past history/sense of experience.

As is the norm, Celebrity Talking Heads are corralled together for fringe or name value (some hipster-youngster digging on Neil Gaiman, figuring that if Gaiman likes Ellison, surely he will too!), including the above-mentioned and, most inexplicably, an amusingly sedate Robin Williams. A series of open-ended questions asked by Williams serve to christen the film on a high note, clearing the air around certain rumors (whether Ellison harmed an overeager fan) while serving to only strengthen Ellison’s no-nonsense mystique by confirming others (like mailing a peculiar-smelling package to a publisher).

The less said the better about the background illustrations that serve to enhance Ellison’s dramatic readings of his own works; it’s an unsuccessful attempt, as Ellison’s wordplay conjures up so much more worthwhile imagery on its own than with the help of cheap, wishy-washy computer FX. Still, the unabashed attitude and rebellious rattle that carries forth in Ellison’s voice as he recites chunks of his own inimitable prose is worth the price of a [hopeful] DVD alone -- the more they’ve filmed and relegated to the Supplements, the better.

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