REVIEW: Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth
I don’t know why, but it always surprises me to find out that prolific authors can’t type. The same goes for any profession where a keyboard is part of it, but authors/writers most of all. I was taught how to type by my computer teacher in the seventh grade. Granted, he did this resentfully, along with teaching us how to read numbers. 5 673 980 000 reads five billion, six hundred seventy-three million, nine hundred eighty thousand, for instance. I’m working on being a writer, but I doubt I’ll ever be an author. Harlan Ellison is one of the world’s finest authors and he types with two index fingers on an old electric typewriter while wearing a sailor’s cap. He’s a mean little Jew from Ohio–and those are his words, not mine.
I know Ellison from his short story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and his episode of the original series of Star Trek, “The City on the Edge of Forever”. If Ellison read that sentence, he’d likely chew my ass out for not having read more of his work and for basing my opinion on the episode instead of the teleplay, the teleplay being among the finest works of fiction in print, at least according to my mother. The episode itself being an unfaithful awful and missing the point bog standard piece of crap from Hollywood. I gotta read that teleplay–a late-feature reading of a portion of it has me curious. I’m sorry for not reading your work a lot earlier in life–your work having inspired legendary science-fiction and fantasy writers across the globe, I’m not sorry to you. I’m sorry for me.
Harlan, as previously stated, is an absolutely mean little bastard from Ohio. I suppose genius comes from anywhere in the 20th century, and in this case, it came from the little prick who was bullied by every kid at his school. In his words, some people react to being bullied by becoming mean, some become angry or surly–he became smart. He found every word he could use to hurt the bastards who hurt him. If you punched Harlan when he was a kid, he’d insult you so bad that you’d be incapable of punching him again. After spending his teenage years as a drifter and going from one place to another doing various odd jobs, he went to college for a year and a half.
After a year and a half of that particular brand of crap, he moved to New York and took up writing full time. The romantic in me wants to type “and he hasn’t stopped since”. … He still hasn’t stopped since, no matter how much he might hate that sentence. He’s been pounding out his special brand of science fiction with his two index fingers since the early 60s–or was it 1957–who cares, fact is, dude is still writing. Unless he died. I found that out with Harvey Pekar minutes after reviewing American Splendor. Turns out he’d died last year. I hope Harlan is still around. Not least of all because I’d like to meet him and have him yell at me.
The documentary covers all of Ellison’s life in a non-linear fashion from his childhood in Ohio–the bullying mentioned earlier–to his short stint in the military, to his hobby of going to colleges and providing writing workshops and speaking publicly. Throughout all of this, Ellison is working–he’s writing. He wrote on the can at night when all the other soldiers were sleeping, earning him the nickname of “awthah”. He’s writing when people tell him that they want to be writers. His advice? Give up now. You say you’re a writer, you don’t write, you can’t be a writer until you write. Everybody says they want to be writers but they don’t have the time. He says that writing is hard work, just like being a plumber or being an electrician. It takes sitting down and working and working until you get things done.
The movie itself is a fine construction. It takes interviews with Ellison and his friends, footage from Ellison’s childhood, footage of various interviews and parts of his life, and mashes them together with excerpts from his writing throughout his life when appropriate. You know the story “”Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman”? Turns out that Ellison wrote it before a writer’s class he had to go to. They’d been assigned to write a story during the week and come in with a rough draft in seven days. About an hour beforehand, Ellison realized he hadn’t written anything. So, he wrote a story that went on to define a generation. Hearing Ellison screech “Get stuffed!” is more than you need to know about his process.
People always ask Ellison where he gets his ideas. The movie says that he has never used drugs. While I know that that has to be true, it still seems impossible that the mind that thought of “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” is entirely well. It is entirely his mind, and his mind seems to be one of the greatest in literature. It can only seem to be because, as per Neil Gaiman, Harlan is simultaneously the world’s leading science fiction author and an eleven year old boy. And an old Jewish man.
In a rant ironically titled “Pay the Writer” when uploaded onto YouTube (where Ellison receives no money for it), Ellison talks about how amateur writers ruin everything for the professionals. They do anything they can for free because they think that’s how they get paid–which, as you can tell, makes no sense. It doesn’t get you anything and because these executives–these vultures–are so used to being paid for taking a dump, they don’t want to pay for anything, they won’t pay you for anything. Harlan Ellison trademarked his name. … That’s not a joke. Harlan Ellison has trademarked his name so that you can’t use it without having to pay him. But for me, the important part of this rant is at the end, when he winds down. He holds his hand to his head and says that everything makes him angry. Being angry makes him angry, waking up angry makes him angry, going to sleep angry makes him angry. I don’t know about you, but I find angry people to be oddly charming. THREE AND A HALF STARS
Harlan Ellison is a registered trademark of the Kilimanjaro Corporation and is used here without permission.