Review: Harlan Ellison has a mouth and screams in Dreams With Sharp Teeth

It's hard to do the standard who-what-where-why-when-how shtick when you're talking about Harlan Ellison. Do you mention that he's one of the most influential and important writers of speculative fiction of the past 100 or so years, with works like "Jeffty Is Five," "A Boy and His Dog," "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" and literally hundreds of others to his credit? Do you mention that he's an anthologist who changed the syntax of entire genres with Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions?

Do you mention his work as a TV writer, and the classic scripts he wrote for Star Trek and The Outer Limits, scripts the influences of which can be seen in the two biggest movies of the summer, Star Trek (about the Enterprise existing in a different reality due to a distortion in time) and Terminator Salvation (part of a franchise Ellison had to sue in order to get acknowledgment for inspiring, via his Outer Limits scripts "Soldier" and "Demon With a Glass Hand")?

Do you mention how you dodge covering all the things he's done by using the old journalistic sleight-of-hand "Do you mention ... ?", and then deftly point out that Ellison is the subject of Erik Nelson's new shot-on-video documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth (Docudrama Films, $26.95) and go right into your review?

Dreams With Sharp Teeth features comments and observations about Ellison from the likes of Robin Williams, Peter David, Ron Moore, screenwriter Josh Olson and Neil Gaiman, who, in the film, makes the point that everything Ellison does can be thought of as one big piece of "performance art."

Let's put this observation of Gaiman's in the context of other movies that capture works of performance art. One of the great filmmakers of our time is Jonathan Demme, who's maybe the only guy good enough and versatile enough to give us The Silence of the Lambs, Neil Young: Heart of Gold and Rachel Getting Married. But do you think of Swimming to Cambodia as a Demme film? Or do you think of it as a Spalding Gray performance piece? Do you think of Grey's Anatomy as a Steven Soderbergh movie? Ever?

If Spalding Gray as a performance artist eclipses heavy hitters like Demme and Soderbergh, what chance does Erik Nelson have with a subject like Ellison? In Dreams With Sharp Teeth, the subject eclipses the filmmaking so much that the filmmaking becomes invisible.

This is a review of Dreams With Sharp Teeth, not a review of Harlan Ellison. Does Nelson have the awareness as a filmmaker to make Dreams With Sharp Teeth a transparent medium through which Ellison's performance art can be communicated? Or is the issue that Nelson just doesn't have the chops to put a distinct filmmaker's stamp on his portrait of Ellison?

Nelson produced the skull-bashingly great Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man, the biography of eccentric naturalist Timothy Treadwell, who was killed by a bear in Alaska. Any competent guy with a camera could shoot a portrait of Timothy Treadwell, but only a guy like Herzog could create a portrait of Treadwell as complex and thematically deep as Grizzly Man and also make it the unique vision of a unique filmmaker. Nelson as producer must be aware of that.

If Nelson did remove himself from the equation, he did a bang-up job. Ellison's performance art is passionate, mind-chewing and insightful as always, and his ability to vivisect cultural institutions like TV is as cruel and necessary as it ever has been. For this alone, Dreams With Sharp Teeth is worth a look ... to say nothing of the DVD extras, in which Ellison's performance art is un-muzzled via a selection of readings by Ellison of story excerpts from works like "Prince Myshkin, and Hold the Relish," "All the Lies That Are My Life," "The Silence" and others.

Despite the greatness of Ellison's performance art, Dreams With Sharp Teeth, as a work of filmmaking, doesn't feel as sharp as it could have been. It comes across as Harlan's movie, and he let Nelson shoot it. This isn't a bad thing, but it does whet the hope that someday there'll be an Ellison documentary that's truly a dialogue with Ellison, and that's not as much of a venue for him.

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