We watched the documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth about Harlan Ellison at the South by Southwest Film Festival last night, and some of it was impressive, like watching the sharp-penned writer work in a bookstore window in 1994, spending five hours typing a short story so people could see that it's an actual job. However, the film disappointed by refusing to delve into any of the controversy surrounding Ellison at all, turning it into a big fluff piece that basically fails to explain his cranky, world-hating genius.
The film features people like Robin Williams and Neil Gaiman talking about the impact Harlan has had on the world of writing, and there's a great amount of attention to the idea of writing as a real job where you have to roll up your sleeves and dive in,. And we see that work. Even at 73 years old, he still sits down at a manual typewriter and pounds out a daily living. While Ellison claims not to be rich, he does live in a spectacular house he calls The Lost Aztec Temple of Mars on 200 acres in the San Fernando Valley, so he ain't suffering.
However, the film doesn't touch on many of the controversies surrounding him, barely mentioning two of his many lawsuits, the fact that he was fired from Disney on his first day on the job, or the controversial boob-grabbing during the World Science Fiction Convention two years ago. In fact, the hardest line of questioning comes from Robin Williams at the beginning of the film, who runs through a laundry list asking Harlan if some of the things he is credited with doing are true or not.
There's no question about the impact of Harlan's writing, and the sheer firehose pressure of material he's been able to output over his lifetime, but we would have liked to see a more objective look at the man that didn't attempt to just hero-worship him for an hour and a half. It's a decent look at his current life and lifestyle, but it breezes over his early days as a writer. You may come away feeling like you've just gotten a better look at the "Harlan Ellison" that he presents to the world, almost like an act he puts on for others. Is there a real Harlan Ellison behind this guy? The film sure doesn't let us know.
We also attended the "A Conversation With Harlan Ellison" panel earlier in the week, which was mostly a chance for people to watch Harry Knowles from Ain't It Cool News attempt to interview Ellison. Eventually things got interesting when Ellison started ranting. While he was mostly all bark and no bite, he did leave us with a lot of choice quotes which we've compiled below. Fortunately he didn't break anyone's pelvis, although he did bleed all over himself at one point.
He spent a good amount of time talking about the William Friedkin film Sorcerer, which is one of his favorites. In fact, he's written an entire book of movie criticism called Harlan Ellison's Watching, which compiles 25 years of his film writing.
When asked if he enjoyed the documentary, he said "Well, I thought to myself 'That's a weird funny old guy that I'd like to be friends with!'"
He also noted, "I've only been an asshole to assholes!"
When Harry Knowles confessed he was one of those kids who loved Star Wars back in the 70s (which Ellison hated), Ellison said "I didn't hate people like that, I just didn't want to be around them!"
He loves the Coen Brothers, but hated the movie Fargo, which he said was "Deifying morons."
Once at a book signing when a woman asked for a special favor, he said no and she refused to buy the book. He told her "I'd make more money if I killed you and sold your body parts!"
He said screenwriter Ron Bass was "a whore among whores."
When asked who were the top five public figures he currently hated, he said "George Bush and Dick Cheney (they count as one), the head of ABC Programming, Jerry Falwell, Ann Coulter, and Bill O'Reilly.
However, later he said "Who do I hate? What time is it?"
One of his favorite works for film or tv is the Outer Limits episode "Demon With A Glass Hand."
He says that he has a "great fucking life" and is glad that he owns his own house, has a ton of books and music, and has a great wife. Plus, "They just made a fuckin' movie about me, so I can't be that goddamn obscure!"
Harlan hopped down off the stage at one point to show off a book he was selling at the panel, and when he went back to the stage he tripped and fell onto his knees, and then did a "BIlly Barty impression" (according to Harlan) as he walked on his knees back to his chair. However, one of his knees started bleeding and when someone from the audience offered a band-aid, Harry remarked on how amazing it was that he had a band-aid on hand. Harlan said, "No Harry, amazing would be if he had a yak." Touché.