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September 2008
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Lucius Shepard
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Jerry Oltion
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Editorial - September 2008
by Gordon Van Gelder

IT ISN'T every day that our own film editor, longtime contributor, and irrepressible gadfly is featured in his own documentary, so when Harlan Ellison's agent offered me a pass to see Dreams with Sharp Teeth screened in NYC, of course I said yes. (Thanks, Richard.)

Before I get into the movie though, let me answer one of our most frequently asked questions and explain Harlan's position as our film editor. Longtime readers know that Harlan was our primary film reviewer through the 1980s before passing the torch to Kathi Maio. He actually offered his resignation as our film editor several years ago—as I recall, it was after one of Lucius Shepard's reviews irked him—but I didn't accept it. As long as there's a chance that Mr. Ellison will contribute another film review to our pages, he remains our film editor.

Now, regarding the movie in question, it is (like most biographical documentaries) an attempt to capture the life and spirit of its subject. This film has interviews, archive clips, scenes of Harlan reading from his own work, and commentary from people who know Harlan well, like Neil Gaiman and Robin Williams. (I myself get a moment of screen time, from a panel Harlan and I did at the Nebula Awards in 2006, but if you glance down to find that last Goober in the candy box, you'll miss me.) Like the majority of documentaries I've seen, the film is a bit formless in structure, but there is some narrative arc to it, and I never found my attention wavering during the hour-and-a-half that the movie ran.

Of course, there's one big reason why the movie was compelling, and his initials are H.E. This is not one of those documentaries where a minor character steals the show. Dreams with Sharp Teeth is all Harlan.

It's Harlan the showman, reading from "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" and "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore."

It's Harlan the businessman, discussing some of his business strategies and gloating over the dead gopher he mailed to a publishing executive back in the 1970s.

It's Harlan the friend, hanging around with some of his many amigos.

It's Harlan the artist, at work in his office and (in archive footage) in the window of a bookstore.

It's Harlan the meek, tentatively putting forth a humble opinion and virtually trembling in fear that someone might disagree.

Okay, I included that last one just to make sure you're still awake. If Harlan has ever done anything meekly, this film sure doesn't give an indication of it.

In fact, it's because of Harlan's less than bashful nature that I suspect Dreams with Sharp Teeth will not get many reliable reviews. Harlan is bold, brash, and hugely opinionated. It's hard to watch this movie with anything resembling critical detachment. People might hate parts of it, they might love it, but they're unlikely to have a dispassionate reaction to it.

And that's true to Ellison's spirit. As far as I can tell, Harlan has never done anything dispassionately—he cares, he cares if you care, and as a result, his work matters. That passion is one of the many reasons why his stories have been imprinted on my brain to such an extent that I can quote scenes and lines twenty-eight years after reading them, and one reason why I think readers will be reading his stories in the year 2114 and saying, "Where can I get more like this?"

I should mention another pair of reasons why I doubt you'll find many reliable reviews of the movie, but to do so, let me digress and tell you about the most entertaining panel I've ever seen at a science fiction convention. It took place in 1991 at the World Fantasy Convention in Tucson and the subject of the panel was, "How Do You Respond to a Negative Review." Gene Wolfe started things off by saying, "When I get a negative review, I look to see who wrote it, and I ask, 'What do I have on this guy? How can I get back at him?'" The other two panelists—Ed Bryant and Bill Warren (I think; maybe it was Bill Nolan)—scarcely got in a word before the last two panelists started. Robert Silverberg said, "I don't read my reviews. They're not written for me and they have nothing to say to me." To which Harlan replied with something akin to, "Are you kidding? Don't you want to hunt down these jerks and rip out their aortas?" What ensued was forty-five minutes of Bob and Harlan playing out a big-brother/little-brother relationship—much to the audience's amusement—and then wrapped up at the end when David Hartwell spoke up from the audience in favor of good, serious, well-considered reviews. All the panelists agreed that reviews are a worthy endeavor, especially when those reviews are evaluating someone else's work.

Since Harlan has made no secret of his feelings about unfavorable reviews, I suspect a lot of critics will resist tempting Harlan to rip out their aortas. I know I much prefer having mine in my chest rather than seeing it between Harlan's teeth.

The other reason you won't see many dispassionate reviews is that Harlan knows everybody. Everyone. The list of people whose paths cross Harlan's in just this one documentary is impressive: Tony Bennett, Gene Rodenberry, Tom Snyder, Richard Thompson, and droves more whom I can't recall now. (I wasn't taking notes.) Screenwriter Josh Olson (A History of Violence) came to the screening with the schoolteacher who turned him on to Harlan's work when he was thirteen. This guy Ellison has lived an outsized life….

…Which leads me to my biggest complaint about the film. Too many people are left out of it. Harlan himself told me that he encouraged filmmaker Erik Nelson to seek out some of Harlan's enemies, only to be told, "We don't need to. You're your own worst enemy." But it's not the commentary from Harlan's foes that I missed—it's the comments from people who know him best. Where are the interviews with Robert Silverberg and Norman Spinrad? Why are we deprived the great experience of hearing Michael Moorcock tell about the times when he picked Harlan up bodily and made a scene? And Susan—Harlan's wonderful wife—gets some screen time, but why so little commentary from her?

While I'm at it, let me ask too: why does the film lack interviews with any of Harlan's former wives? Even more importantly, Harlan mentions in the movie that he hasn't spoken with his sister since their mother died—but did that mean the filmmakers couldn't speak with her? Dreams with Sharp Teeth reminds me a lot of Terry Zwigoff's amazing documentary Crumb, about comix artist R. Crumb, but where Mr. Zwigoff struck gold in digging into his subject's family history, Erik Nelson shied away too much from delving into Harlan's family. The movie has a beautiful scene of Harlan watching some family films of his father (who died when he was thirteen). I wish it had dug deeper and found more.

Perhaps that's too much to ask from one documentary, but I must say that I think it's only right to demand excellence from a movie about a man who has spent his whole life fighting mediocrity.

I've read that Dreams with Sharp Teeth is due for theatrical release in June, so maybe some of you will have seen the film by the time you read this editorial. If so, I hope you'll take a minute to comment on our online forum, or to send us a line and sound off about the film. I'm particularly interested in finding out how the movie goes over with people who don't know Harlan already. Is it an intriguing introduction to a genius of a writer, or is it ninety minutes about a ranting lunatic?

Me, I think it's a good film about a great writer and I hope someday we'll see more about him. Meantime, I plan to follow up on something I learned from Dreams and see if I can find a copy of the one feature film written by Mr. Ellison. Harlan says The Oscar often winds up on lists of the worst movies of all time, but I want to see for myself. I seriously doubt that a movie written by Harlan is even half as bad as Gigli.


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