Writer Harlan Ellison's abundant, almost excessive passion for life and art can make him an absolute delight one moment and a holy terror the next. If Ellison likes a young writer's work, he'll advocate for it ferociously, willing to elevate an unknown to his own level. But if that same writer later offends him—intentionally or not—Ellison has been known to turn like month-old milk. Ellison has brawled—sometimes literally—with critics, fans, and Hollywood producers, and he's penned fiction, non-fiction, and teleplays that combine the erudite and the vulgar in a way that his pal Robin Williams describes as "Borsht and Berkeley." Another pal, Neil Gaiman, calls Ellison's eclectic, often controversial career "a huge piece of performance art."
Erik Nelson's documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth: A Film About Harlan Ellison is an idea that's long overdue: a career-spanning conversation with Ellison peppered with clips from TV interviews and public appearances. Nelson's been working on the film for over 25 years, beginning as a student in 1981, when he videotaped Ellison for a PBS documentary. But the majority of Dreams With Sharp Teeth was shot over the past few years, and catches Ellison snapping at bad drivers in Los Angeles traffic, walking around a movie set with a fake udder attached to his neck, and roaming his hillside mini-mansion, with its secret passages, heaps of memorabilia, and shelves full of manual typewriters. More than maybe any other living writer, Ellison seems to enjoy his job and the sound of his own words—although he's sometimes had difficulty finishing what he starts, and his diffuse focus seems to have prevented him from producing novels as artful and impactful as his short stories.
As an Ellison fan, Nelson does his subject some small disservices, mainly by failing to offer a broad enough perspective on the man's work or his personal vendettas. No one from the anti-Ellison camp gets any camera time, and when Ellison's friends talk about his shortcomings, they do so lovingly. But then again, Ellison himself seems to know his strengths and weaknesses well. He goes from boasting about his mercenary instincts—"I sell my soul, but at the highest rates"—to admitting that he still feels the sting of being laughed at and picked on as a child. All told, Ellison is a fascinating person to spend 96 minutes with. But you probably shouldn't risk that 97th.