Watched Dreams With Sharp Teeth this evening, which I had recorded on the DVD a few days back when it premiered on Sundance Channel. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a documentary about Harlan Ellison, and if you don’t know who Harlan Ellison is, please drown yourself now.
I liked the film, although it’s less documentary than an encomium for the man from several admirers. The film makes a couple of feints in the direction of exploring his career failures and personal shortcomings, but really only feints at them, occupying itself more with the position of “he is who he is” and letting you take him at face value or not. I think that’s fine because if you’re anywhere near observant you see where the gaps are, and where things are left unsaid, to be filled in by rumor or inference or sympathy, if you want to go that direction. It’s not a complete picture, although I don’t think the film suggests that it is.
What is there does show why so many creative people and especially writers admire him, and also why so many do not. Ellison seems very precisely a “charming little fucker” — someone fast off the blocks, very smart and both blessed and cursed to live without a filter. This can look like fearlessness (which is where the easy admiration comes in), but I suspect it’s more accurate to say it’s a personal compulsion to actively seek the truthful moment, even if doing so is not the politic or convenient or nice thing to do. I would suspect the people who are Ellison’s genuine friends admire this about him rather than his “fearlessness,” and that this admiration is well mixed with the understanding that this quality of active truth-seeking will be visited upon them as well, for better and worse. He strikes me as a friend whom one will be called upon often to forgive his trespasses. Ellison makes mention in the film that he’s someone who is great at dinner and murder to live with; I don’t doubt this is accurate. I also don’t doubt that if he is your friend, you could call him to help you bury a body. He’d bitch about his aching back the whole time, but he’d still grab a shovel.
Mind you, this is all supposition on my part. I don’t know Ellison outside his writing, which I generally admire. My only experience with him was when he showed up on a comment thread here a few years back, at which time he was kind to me and rather less so to people to whom he believed he did not owe kindness. I do know we have friends in common, and those friends prize his friendship, which matters to me when I think about him. I also have friends whose run-ins with him are, shall we say, fairly memorable. I do think I’d like to meet him one day and apprehend him for myself. Dinner would be sufficient to start.
In any event, check out the film if you have the chance.