Thursday, December 12, 2019

Dreams with Sharp Teeth

(2008) Written and directed by Erik Nelson; Starring: Harlan Ellison, Robin Williams, Neil Gaiman, Carol Cooper, Ronald D. Moore, Carol Cooper, Dan Simmons, Josh Olson, Susan Anne Toth; Available on DVD

Rating: ***½ 

“When you’ve been made an outsider, you are always angry. You respond to it in a lot of different ways: A lot of people get surly, a lot of people get mean, some people turn into serial killers. I got so smart that I could just kill ‘em with logic or their own mouths.” – Harlan Ellison

Even if you’ve never read a story from the late great author Harlan Ellison, you’ve probably experienced his impact on film and television. He left an indelible mark on genre television, having penned some of the greatest episodes of the 1960s: “The City on the Edge of Forever” for Star Trek, and “Demon with a Glass Hand” and “Soldier” for The Outer Limits. His novella “A Boy and His Dog” was adapted for the excellent 1975 movie. He also made numerous talk show appearances, where his candor and venomous wit was on display. In his documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth, Erik Nelson presents an unsentimental but oddly affectionate profile of Ellison and his career.

The film opens with Ellison’s friend and admirer, Robin Williams, doing a fact check with the writer about some of his more infamous exploits. Ellison confirmed that he once mailed a dead gopher to a publishing house, attacked an ABC TV executive,* drove a truck with nitroglycerine as the cargo, and claims to have had sex with 500 women (Ellison corrected it to 700). On the other hand, he vehemently denied throwing a fan down an elevator shaft. Aside from these hyperbolic feats, his litany of exploits (real and imaginary) illustrates how much Harlan Ellison the personality is synonymous with Harlan Ellison the writer.

* Interesting Fact: Ellison recounted how he assaulted an ABC TV executive for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in producer Irwin Allen’s office. In a moment of anger, Ellison threw a punch, causing the object of his ire to fall backward. This action in turn caused the Seaview submarine model to fall off the wall and onto the hapless executive, fracturing his pelvis.

It can be notoriously difficult for a movie to adequately convey what makes an artist or writer’s work great. Nelson does his best, featuring interviews with friends and admirers (including Neil Gaiman, Josh Olson, and others), but describing Ellison is a bit like the proverb of the blind men and the elephant – we learn about the parts, without getting a clear picture of the whole. As a result, it’s not too surprising that the best composite of Ellison is from the author himself. You could set the camera down anywhere, step away, and let Harlan Ellison do his thing, which is essentially what you see Nelson do. We get a taste for his inimitable prose style as he reads excerpts from some of his most popular stories and essays, such as his animated recital of one of his most famous short stories, "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman."

Ellison traces his childhood days growing up in a small town in Ohio, where he was mercilessly bullied and beaten up by classmates on a regular basis.* In one particularly revelatory scene, he confides how he couldn’t stand being made fun of. It’s easy to connect the dots, to see how his formative years shaped the rest of his life, and his interactions (positive and negative) with all who crossed his path. At its core, Dreams with Sharp Teeth is a profile of a man with strong convictions who’s burned many bridges along the way and would gladly burn them again, if given the chance. As the film argues, however, his irritation isn’t without purpose. He’s fiercely passionate about his craft,** and can’t abide not being adequately compensated for his work. He’s perpetually irked at everything, ready to zero in on his targets like a smart bomb. Some of the objects/individuals he mercilessly skewers include: companies that want something for nothing, the willfully illiterate, television, fans and fandom in general, ignorance and individuals who believe they have a right to an opinion (“I've got news for you, schmuck! You’re entitled to your informed opinion.”).

* Fun Fact #1: Ellison got his revenge over the years by incorporating the names of his childhood bullies in stories.

** Fun Fact #2: A quote on his trusty Olympia typewriter (he keeps several spares in a nook in his home) by musician P.J. Proby, states: “I am an artist, and should be exempt from shit.”

If there’s one quibble with Dreams with Sharp Teeth, it’s that the documentary lapses a little too much into unchecked adoration of its subject, leaving the profile of Ellison a trifle one-sided. Although we hear from his wife Susan (married until his death in 2018), we never hear from any of his four ex-wives or those who were on the receiving end of his verbal (and sometimes) physical assaults.* The film also discusses how he presided over writers workshops, where he alternately championed writers he deemed to have promise, and discouraged those whose writing didn’t meet his standards. This begs the question, what now famous writers did he discourage? It would have been interesting to hear from some of them as well. To some, being rejected by Ellison might have been a dubious (if not devastating) badge of honor (or shame, depending on your point of view).

* Fun Fact #3: In one scene, he describes an incident at a convention, when he purposely urinated on an over-eager fan’s shoe, when asked a question in the restroom.

Dreams with Sharp Teeth is a complex, multi-faceted (albeit flawed) portrait of a precocious boy with a big mouth who never quite grew up. He’s a giant in his field who could have soared to even loftier heights, if not for his irascible demeanor and uncompromising ideals. But if Ellison comes off as curmudgeonly and acerbic, he would probably be the first to agree, and say that he wouldn’t have it any other way. His faults arguably made him the great writer he was, fearless, fiercely unapologetic and endlessly inventive. There has never been anyone quite like Harlan Ellison before, and we may never see his like again.  


  1. Fascinating review, Barry.
    I must confess that I've never read Harlan Ellison, but I have, of course, seen his writing interpreted for the screen.
    He sounds like a complex and infuriating man.

    1. Thanks so much, John! Complex and infuriating are good ways to describe Ellison. In some ways, he was his most ardent supporter and his own worst enemy. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to get on his bad side.

    2. I remember during one memorable appearance on TOMORROW with Tom Snyder, he was sitting there with Jimmy Doohan (Scotty) and a few other Star Trek regulars. He was basically ranting that Star Trek was "a cop show! It's a cop show!" And Jimmy Doohan was getting madder and madder, and looked like he was going to punch Ellison. Cooler heads prevailed, and Doohan muttered, "It was more than that" and left it at that. I wanted to punch him too, and lost some respect for him.

    3. Ellison didn't mince words and had no filters - not always an admirable trait. I think he could have pushed the most mild-people over the edge at times. I suspect Doohan handled things as well as could be expected, given the trying circumstances.

  2. I've read a little about Ellison in the past; both from others and from himself. He doesn't sound like a particularly fun guy to hang with. I *think* it was him that wrote about a talk he once gave on how obnoxious fans can be. And while many of his stories were appalling, he painted all fans with the same brush and assumed that the entire audience (who must have mostly been fans) agreed with him 100%. That, to me, goes beyond curmudgeon and and right into becoming some of the very things you are critical of.

    1. I agree. I could be wrong, but I got the distinct impression that he considered attending conventions as a necessary evil, and that catering to his fans was a duty rather than a privilege. I think he has a fascinating individual from a distance, but close up was probably another matter.