Dreams with Sharp Teeth (2008)

(On DVD, December 2010) Few contemporary writers elicit a variety of reactions like Harlan Ellison.  With his substantial body of work, long personal history and contentious personality, Ellison can be admired and reviled, often by the same people at various times.  Famously cranky, extremely intelligent, extraordinarily outspoken and connected to a variety of subcultures from Science Fiction fandom to Hollywood professionals, Ellison is an ideal subject for a documentary and Dreams with Sharp Teeth, twenty-five years in the making, is meant to offer an overview of the man and his career.  A compilation of archival footage, interviews with Ellison, readings, testimonies from friends such as Josh Olson and Robin Williams and a minimal amount of on-screen captions for context, Dream With Sharp Teeth is not an objective view of its subject: director Erik Nelson is too much of a fan to seriously question the Ellison mythos (although he lets Neil Gaiman come closest to an objective assessment by leaving a reference to Ellison’s career as performance art) and the film is substantially stacked in Ellison’s favour.  People familiar with the Science-Fiction field will delight in spotting appearances by Dan Simmons, Connie Willis (!), Michael Cassutt and Ronald D. Moore.  (Those same SF fans may quibble with how Ellison’s troubled relation with fandom is illustrated by his presence at the 2006 Nebula weekend: The Nebulas are a professionals’ event; couldn’t Nelson go to the fannish 2006 L.A. Worldcon instead?)   But the star remains Ellison… in all of his overblown personality, important friends, nice house and tortured history with Hollywood and the SF&F field.  Is it an interesting documentary?  Sure.  Is it the best possible documentary about Ellison?  Heck no –but documentaries being works of passion, it would be unlikely to see one made by someone who wouldn’t already be a fan of Ellison.  There are so many fascinating things that could be discussed about Ellison dispassionately, but for that, we will probably have to wait for an unauthorized biography.  In the meantime, Ellison fans and SF readers will be happy with the film as-is.  The DVD comes with a set of generally superfluous readings, but also an overview of the film’s premiere (with unlikely guests such as Werner Herzog and Drew McWeeny) and a curiously interesting pizza chat between Ellison and Gaiman, in which Ellison isn’t being Ellison (much) and in which, if you know what to listen for, you can even hear a reaction to Ellison’s 2006 L.A. Con IV fiasco.  As SF fans with poisonously long memories (or even a look at Ellison’s Wikipedia page) will tell you, Dreams with Sharp Teeth only tells a chunk of the full Ellison story –which can’t be solely told by his friends.

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