Which of the following is true about Harlan Ellison? He sent all his early published stories to a college professor who told him he couldn’t write. He is known to argue with editors and TV producers and has waged numerous lawsuits to win control over his creative properties. His worst job was “scraping petrified dead kittens off a floor.” His favorite movies are the Thief of Baghdad, The Third Man and The Magnificent 7. He argues with his fans at conventions. And at the screening of the documentary about him, Dreams With Sharp Teeth, held recently at the American Cinematheque at the Aero, he jumped all over the emcee who announced the Cinematheque’s upcoming Sci-Fi and Horror Film Festival.
“Don’t say ‘sci-fi!” he screamed from the audience. He went on to compare that gaffe to using the “n” word, and when the audience gasped, Ellison said, “If anyone has any complaints, see me later!”
The outrageous stories about Harlan Ellison are, according to him, mostly true (at least the ones listed above) and have at times almost, but not quite, obscured his achievements as a writer: 75 books, countless short stories and articles in magazines, multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, TV scripts, lectures and personal appearances. Armed with relentless energy, an encyclopedic mind and a verbal wit faster than any science fiction story’s laser guns, Ellison seems larger than life.
Dreams With Sharp Teeth, which is also the title of an anthology of Ellison stories, is a “work in progress.” In a chat following the screening, Ellison and director Eric Nelson revealed that the film has been in production on and off for over 20 years.
“I didn’t realize Eric was doing a movie at first,” said Ellison. “I thought he was a fan doing a student project. Then he let me in that it was a real movie.”
The film combines footage of Harlan Ellison from past TV interviews, such as one with the late great Tom Snyder, with present interviews (Robin Williams does some interrogating) and some amazing footage from the Ellison family’s home movies, showing young Harlan as a punky troublemaking kid. In one sequence, Ellison talks about his father while watching the home movie footage and is moved to the point of tears.
But it was the curmudgeon with his quick ripostes whom the fans had come to see and hear. And not only did the film deliver, but Ellison himself held forth in fine form while signing books at Every Picture Tells A Story both before and after the screening.
When this writer approached Ellison at the bookstore and told him she was “covering” the event, he said, “I’m a pain in the ass. I hate interviews. They’re the equivalent of a red-hot ingot being thrust up my left nostril. But I have to do them.” He also hates signings, but he signed and chatted with everyone who lined up, taking his time to spend about 10 minutes with each fan, 9 1/2 minutes of which were spent telling anecdotes that had the crowd cracking up.
Some of Ellison’s pithiest observations, heard during the evening:
“Life is a series of confrontations.”
“LA is a big gauche baby with a shotgun in its mouth.”
“Most people are either young morons, middle-aged sickos or old perverts.”
“I am a very loyal friend. I am an implacable enemy.”
“People ask me where I get my ideas. I tell them there’s a firm in Schenectady that sends them to me. And every time I say that, there’s always some schmuck who comes up to me and asks me for the address.”