Harlan Ellison makes me feel guilty for being a writer - or at the very least, for calling myself one. He's the true scribe, the real deal, the madman Muhammad Ali of letters. Whether it's sci-fi, or speculative fiction, or imaginative literature (his preference tends to change over time), Ellison is the standard bearer for the genre and the hateful curve breaker, the smartest kid in the class and the smart-assiest man on the planet. He has every right to be arrogant, pissy, and proud. He's won numerous awards, crafted classic pieces of prose and commentary, lived the life that dozens of lesser men would kill for, and still finds the time to complain almost constantly about the world around him - and with good reason. In a society slowly fading into a cloud of self-inflicted illiteracy, he's the last intellectually angry man. In essence, he's reason in a universe racked with conformity, insipidness, and ennui.
So why does he inspire such shame in yours truly? Certainly, it has little to do with his prodigious output or cantankerous cultural perspective. It has nothing to do with the tall tales and legends legitimized as part of his already amazing history. There is no connection to his recent lack of product, since it's crystal clear the man works when he wants and feels like it. In fact, there is nothing in the stunning, spellbinding documentary Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth, that fuels said feelings of inadequacy. No, it's like standing in the presence of the Pope and recognizing that you will never be as pious, or well-placed, as this idolized man of the cloth. And when you consider this raging Atheist's religion is words, the lack of faith is infinitely frustrating.
On screen, Ellison is a mesmerist. Director Erik Nelson, best known for his historical TV documentaries and producing Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, does a very smart thing here. In true talking head style, he keeps the camera centered squarely on the author. Even better, in between the ample anecdotes, he has him read from his amazing works. Whether its real life reminiscences of his time spent as a child in Ohio, or allegorical brilliance ala "Repent Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman, UK author Neil Gaiman says it best when he calls everything Ellison does part of an elaborate "performance art" - with the creation known as 'Harlan Ellison' at the very center. There are times when you wonder whether one man can be this confrontational, this candid...this creative. And then there are moments when you wonder why other artists don't follow his lead.