This is my first review of a film that I first saw on Netflix, rather than in a theater or on a DVD, and I have to say the service is something of a revolution in how one watches film; or, to be more accurate, in WHAT one watches, for had it not been for the recommendations links the website provides, based upon earlier choices of viewed material, I would likely not have had any knowledge nor interest in seeking out the title I ended up reviewing.
That title would be producer and director Erik Nelson’s 2008 documentary on science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, Dreams With Sharp Teeth. It’s one of seemingly countless documentaries made on minor practitioners of art with pretensions to lasting depth and permanence. The fact is that, despite the film’s claims of his being amongst the greatest of 20th Century writers, as well as his lauding within the sci fi industry, Ellison is not a creator of real ‘art,’ much less literature of a lasting value. The man has written some well known teleplays, a couple thousand published short stories, and edited some influential anthologies within the genre, but even his most ardent supporters will tell you his few attempts at writing a novel have failed. That’s because, like most sci fi writers (see Philip K. Dick), his ideas for potential stories far outpace his writerly talent and skill to execute those stories to their fullest. Like most genre writers, his tales are high on concept and mechanics but short on depth and characterization; and, the fact that he’s never published a successful novel (artistically) leaves him decidedly short in the genre vs. the acclaimed giants like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, or even older masters like Olaf Stapledon or A.E. Van Vogt, who each have some works that their champions can legitimately posit as having merit outside the genre.
Nonetheless, Dreams With Sharp Teeth ignores these realities, and is intent on being a mere hagiography; albeit an odd one, as it seems more content in glorifying Ellison’s familiar schtick of being an in your face persona rather than actually dealing with his writing, pro or con. What little the film does spend on his writing is mainly in self-reflexive clips where Ellison reads quotes from well known short stories while special effects play out behind his own image. But, the actual words that Ellison reads point out more of his flaws, than strengths, as a writer, as the passages are tinged with occasional banalities, while being mired in overwrought metaphors and strained similes. It’s as if describing something over and again is seen as depth, rather than lauding actually describing something aptly. Or even letting the characterization take hold.
Apparently, Nelson spent three decades culling together this documentary, being granted access to Ellison at work when he was a college student, and following him since. Yet, despite a brief bit about Ellison writing a story in a bookstore window, we see and hear almost nothing of the creative process. It always galls me that documentaries on creative people elide the very thing that makes the documentary maker want to film his subject: The creative process. The film has the usual talking head celebrities, like comic Robin Williams, comic book writer Neil Gaiman, and sci fi writer Dan Simmons, but even the latter two stumble at trying to state why Ellison should be the center of such a film. The man himself can do little but pass off trite bon mots as wisdom.
Nonetheless, Ellison, despite his artistic shortcomings, is an entertaining figure . . . for about 20 minutes; not the film’s whole 96 minutes. He simply has little of depth to say: He does not like this, he does not like that, he revels in tales of his supposed bravado with fans, studio executives, and other writers, but we have all known people like this, and they are bores, and boors. The only reason no one seems to tell this to Ellison is because, well, he’s rich and famous, and pointing this out to someone rich and famous is decidedly un-American. Or so it seems. What this film does not do is inspire any younger writers to rush out and read Ellison’s work. Rather they will see a documentary that rewards Ellison not for his claimed talents and output, but for his assholic persona, which again reinforces the idea that writers and artists are really egomaniacal jackasses who feel, and deservedly so, that they can treat the rest of the world like shit. It also plays in to the current zeitgeist that, to be a celebrity, means one must de facto be an empty vessel some anonymous viewer can pour their dreams and frailties into.
There are some passages that try to mine Freudian (or Jungian) depths by portraying Ellison as a childhood victim, but this fails since the reality is that he has lived a rather charmed life (a point he even admits, thus obviating one of the film’s main pillars), despite being a short Jew with a big mouth. Yes, he was picked on, and failed with women (many of them after becoming famed), and had to work many menial jobs. So what? That’s life, and to his credit Ellison realizes this. Nelson and the film do not. Perhaps the worst instance of Ellison’s bloviating stupidity comes not when he regales viewers with sensationalized exploits with celebrities, but when he pontificates on about unpublished writers writing for ‘free’ online, and that this somehow undermines the work of ‘professionals’ like himself. Of course, someone who was published decades before the Internet wholly changed the equation of what writing is economically worth cannot understand such a paradigm shift, and his rail comes off showing him as hopelessly outdated, petty, and self-serving; not exactly laudable traits. There’s not a moment in the film where the interviewer actually pushes Ellison to cogitate deeply on things, content as it is to let him just add to his aborning legendry, rather than probe why his work might last long after he is deceased. On a technical level, the film does little to elevate itself from other documentaries, as the cinematography, by Wes Dorman, and music, by Richard Thompson, are of an off the rack nature.
To succeed, as a stand alone work of art, a documentary must a) tell a story of a significant enough nature (about an individual, event, or those things’ place in history- see Capturing The Friedmans), b) tell a lesser story in an innovative enough way (see The Kid Stays In The Picture) to make the lesser story seem significant, or c) do both. Dreams With Sharp Teeth, unfortunately, does neither, and it’s little wonder that, outside the small pond of sci fi, Ellison’s writing has, in its seventh decade in print, left little exterior impact. Therefore, I can state that while I found the film interesting, in small doses, it’s not the sort of thing anyone should go out of their way to see, but if you stumble upon it, on an afternoon with nothing much to do, it’s an okay thing to view. Thus, it’s the almost perfect sort of material for Netflix. If anything of Ellison is remembered in a few centuries, it may likely only be this film, in some large archive of formerly important subjects for anthropological purposes, for, as a film, and as an exploration of an artist, it fails. Here’s hoping director Nelson’s next three decades are a bit more rewarding, to him and us.