On Hydrogen and Stupidity

11 Nov 2014 | 02:01

    Dreams with Sharp Teeth Directed by Erik Nelson at Film Forum

    Harlan Ellison is irresistibly snarky, persistently cynical and preternaturally intelligent, and so are his stories. Dreams with Sharp Teeth, Erik Nelson’s documentary portrait of the writer of 75 books and more than 1700 short stories, illustrates that amply well by training an eye on his larger-than-life personality and his considerable accomplishments. The two aspects, as ur-nerd Neil Gaiman says, are inexplicable. “You have to accept that you have somebody that is partly one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and, partly, an alternately impish and furious 12-year-old boy.”

    While Gaiman and the film make it seem like Ellison is an “unknown” writer, that’s hardly the case. The cult of personality that has built around Harlan Ellison may not exactly be mainstream, but his outlandish antics and his work are hardly the stuff of whispers and hushed tones. Aside from winning four Writers Guild Awards for Best Teleplay, ten Hugo Awards, six Nebula Awards and five Bram Stoker Awards, he is credited with coming up with the word “bugfuck” and the expression, “The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.” His “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” is considered to be one of the 10 most reprinted short stories in the English language and his lawsuits, gopher-mailing, tit-grabbing, pelvis-breaking and incessant insult-hurling are the stuff of self-made legend.

    With that in mind, Nelson understands that the only way to approximately encapsulate Ellison’s essence into a definitive portrait is to make it a fantastic but true catalogue of achievements. Traveling through Ellison’s mansion, the famed “Lost Aztec Temple of Mars” which Ellison had built in 1966, Nelson documents the over-the-top personality in his habitat of lists, awards, wall-to-wall books, posters, figurines and other bric-a-brac. It’s a boyhood dream come true and one that Ellison has worked deczzades to build up.

    Ellison himself, like his stories, is the culmination of a persona made up of equal parts childish and confrontational vibrance. Ellison is the leading authority on Ellison. Dreams is so well-versed and intermittently inspiring because it allows Ellison to run his mouth about everything from his self-made beginnings to his boundless cache of anecdotes and aphorisms. Nelson just winds him up and lets him go. With a little craft, he manages to arrange Ellison’s quotes with a verve and intelligence that admirably doesn’t succumb to fan worship or to Ellison’s bullying.

    As Ellison is constantly quoting himself, it’s no surprise that Nelson doesn’t shed any new light on him or kick over any rocks to uncover hidden truths squirming underneath. Everything has been said before by him in some form or other—from his quotation of Twain calling God “a malign thug” (see: Ellison’s now out-of-print The Glass Teat) to his diatribe on the misuse of the word “awesome,” which I have heard verbatim (and firsthand). It’s all out there already but boiling it down to essential information without losing any of Ellison’s humor is what’s key.

    Fitting Ellison into a sizeable container is an impossible small task, one that Ellison has been trying to do throughout his career. There’s just too much to mention all at once, from his troublemaking childhood to his achievements as a social activist and critic to his distaste for fan culture, God, being called a “science fiction writer” and everything in between. All one could have hoped for is what Nelson delivers, a combination of old and new quotes with a minimum of lag between stories and a lot of affection.