Still has a mouth, and still must scream

Science-fiction legend Harlan Ellison on the new movie starring himself as a "funny, weird old guy" -- and how the WGA wound up as Hollywood's "bitches."

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published March 14, 2008 12:32AM (EDT)

When I was about 18, I went to a science-fiction bookstore in Berkeley, Calif., to attend a book signing by Harlan Ellison. I had a couple of well-thumbed paperback collections for Ellison to sign, and was totally unprepared for the long line of fans, many of them bearing 10 or 15 pristinely preserved hardcover books. The college-age woman in front of me had just such a pile, but was carrying something else too. When she got to the front of the line, she cleared her throat and thrust something toward Ellison. "Mr. Ellison, I wrote a story and you're in it," she said. "You're an elf!"

As Erik Nelson, director of "Dreams With Sharp Teeth," a film about Ellison that just premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival, observed when I told him the story, that woman was enough of an Ellison fan to want to include him in her literary universe -- but not enough of one to understand just how little he would be interested. Along with the other people in line, I cringed and cowered, expecting a nuclear outburst. Ellison went on signing her books, lifting his eyes from the page only to declare in a level voice, "I don't want to read your fucking story."

Ellison occupies a peculiar place in modern literary history, and he's nearly as well known for his explosive temper and his confrontations with editors, TV and movie producers, fellow writers and fans as for his many collections of genre-defying short fiction. If you already know his work and reputation, I don't need to explain its importance to you; if you don't, I probably can't explain it to you. At the end of "Dreams With Sharp Teeth," Ellison extends his gratitude to Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka and Dr. Seuss (among others), and that trifecta just about describes his universe. Such oft-reprinted Ellison stories and novellas as "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" and "A Boy and His Dog" have been prodigiously influential, but Ellison may be less well known today than many of the writers he inspired, from Neil Gaiman and Bruce Sterling to Stephen King and Dan Simmons (to name a few).

Along with the frequently nightmarish, anti-utopian visions of his short stories, Ellison wrote extensively for television in the 1960s, including episodes of "The Outer Limits" ("Demon With a Glass Hand") and the original "Star Trek" ("The City on the Edge of Forever") that remain acknowledged classics of the medium. In a culture where "speculative fiction" has become a pervasive force -- Ellison never liked being called a science-fiction writer, and never fit within the genre's dominant conventions -- his fingerprints are everywhere.

If Ellison remains bitter about the widespread idiocy of his fellow human beings, the prevalence of Republicans and the decline of literacy, he never complains about his career. If he no longer resembles the lady-killing campus celebrity of the '60s and '70s -- he claims he stopped counting his female conquests after he got past 700 -- he has a lovely younger wife (his fifth, but she has lasted more than 20 years) and a famously eccentric house in the Hollywood hills known as the "Lost Aztec Temple of Mars." He has a coterie of loyal fans and many illustrious friends. Robin Williams and Neil Gaiman both appear in "Dreams With Sharp Teeth," and if you ask me it's Williams' funniest film role in years. Gaiman gets off perhaps the best summation of Ellison's personality one could ask for, describing him as partly one of the greatest living writers and partly a bratty 13-year-old boy.

If no one can explain the intensely combative, competitive drive of a personality like Ellison's, Nelson's film paints an absorbing portrait of the author's remarkable life, from his childhood as a much-preyed-upon Jewish kid in a small Ohio town through a series of working-class jobs, his expulsion from college and his apprenticeship as a pulp-fiction writer and editor in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. By the time he emerged as a central figure in the new wave of science fiction, he had done much more in 30 years than most people manage in a lifetime.

After 50-odd years as a professional writer, Ellison has slowed his pace, at least a little. But traces -- OK, more than traces -- of the old ferocity remain. At the Q&A session after the film's premiere, one questioner got Ellison wound up into a lengthy diatribe about his objections to the recent deal struck between the Writers Guild and television and film producers. On the strike blog United Hollywood, Ellison addressed his fellow writers thusly: "You are their bitches. They outslugged you, outthought you, outmaneuvered you; and in the end you ripped off your pants, painted yer asses blue, and said yes sir, may I have another." He signed off as "a sad old man who has fallen among Quislings, Turncoats, Hacks and Cowards."

When I sat down with Ellison in Austin the day after the film's premiere, however, he was unfailingly gracious and polite, answering the awkward questions about his relative obscurity and his relationship to posterity alongside the softballs. He even called two days later and invited me to visit him in Los Angeles. Despite the genuinely friendly character of our conversation, Ellison remains a slippery interlocutor. Portions are transcribed below, but if you listen to the whole thing, you'll catch the moment when he reverses the interview's polarity and begins asking me whether I'm happy with my life and what else I might like to do with it. That was more difficult to handle, in its own way, than any amount of cursing and abuse.

Mr. Ellison, you've been a public figure for many years. But even after all that time, it must be odd to see yourself on the screen as the subject of a documentary film.

Well, first of all it's odd to be called Mr. Ellison. That was my father's name and he died in 1949. My name is Harlan. Or Pinhead. I respond to both with equal vigor. [Laughter.] I have a feeling that my response to this film is a whole lot different than most people who are the subjects of documentaries would have, and one of the reasons is I had nothing to do with it. I was like a field hand. It's Erik's project all the way. One either becomes obsessive about such a thing at the get-go and says, "I'm going to have a hand in this and I'm going to make sure they do this right," or one says, "It's your project, it's your gig. You play it the way you think it should be played." So I stayed out of Erik's hair completely.

I didn't even know there was a film being made. For years! Not only two or three or four or five -- for almost 20 years. I didn't even know Erik was making a film all those years. I thought Erik was an odd little fanboy, superannuated elf if you will, who would come by periodically and push a camera in my face. I consider that part of the job. When I'm at home, I'm a writer. When I'm out on the road, you do what has to be done. You sit for four hours and sign books or answer silly questions or people want to take a photo and you do it. It's just part of the rigor. When Erik said, about two years ago, "It's about time you know what we're doing here: We're doing this movie," I still couldn't grasp it. And I'm not a slow pony! I get things pretty quickly. I thought, maybe this guy is going to sell it to the Sundance Channel, or it'll be on the History Channel or something.

I don't care much one way or another about it. I'm about as celebrated or as famous as I care to be, but what the hell? Can't do any harm, he seems a nice chap. When I went to look at the first cut, it was as if -- the trope that is most specific, I think, is the scene in "Tom Sawyer" where everybody thinks he and Huck are drowned and he comes back and he goes to the church where they're having the funeral service for him and he's up in the loft listening to all the wonderful things people are saying about him. It's an out-of-body experience. Last night, for instance, in the theater, I sat there and I looked at the movie with no vested interest. I don't look and say, "Gee I had a pimple that day," or "Gee, I wish somebody hadn't said that." I look at it as a movie about this funny, weird old guy. And I think, "That's a funny, weird old guy. I'd love to know him. He's really funny."

Erik Nelson: No you wouldn't, Harlan.

Ellison: Well, I would. You're a lot more cautious than I am. Erik said to me at one point that I've been so busy living my life that I didn't even notice I was doing it. It's as if I was one of the survivors on the "Lost" island. I'm sitting on the beach and watching the tide go in and out and responding to that medium without noticing there's an entire continent building up behind me. So now I come to age 73 and there's this goddamned movie about me. And it's not about me. It's about Harlan Ellison. Does that make any sense?

Isn't there a sense in which everyone feels different on the inside, certainly compared to the way the world sees us? You're suddenly seeing yourself from the outside.

I think it's an extension of that big, new idea in physics about the singularity, where each of us, as we move, we branch off and there are thousands of other of us going on into infinity. This is a movie about one of those singularities. I think it's very accurate, I'm delighted. People keep saying, "Did you have a hand in it any way?" The only way I had a hand in it was one day I said to Erik, "You know, you go to my friends. I'm a tough donut to swallow. Anyone who's got the cojones to be my friend is going to say nice things about me. They'll say I'm a pain in the ass but I'm staunch and stuff like that. If you really want to get a rounded picture of me, you must go talk to my enemies. I have made really awful enemies. I am ennobled by the awfulness of my enemies." And Erik said, "We don't need to go to your enemies, you're already your worst enemy." I thought about it for a moment and said, "Yeah, I guess." I think it's a hoot. I think the whole thing is just a hoot.

OK, your enemies aren't in the film. But it must be interesting to see people up there talking about your colorful and contentious history with editors, television producers, other writers and sometimes even your fans. The thing that [Village Voice critic] Carol Cooper says is fascinating, in talking about your fans. She says that on some level, you feel disappointed with the intense and loyal fandom that you and other science-fiction writers may attract, because those people aren't living up to the standards that you set for yourself. It's like they're not leading a life you can respect.

There are times when I am terribly presumptuous, to visit my personal feelings on other people's way of living a life. In truth, I'm very egalitarian in that way. I'm an elitist because I think there are too many stupid people in the world. But one must not pity them; one must take an AK-47 and kill them. You just need to kill as many stupid people as you can find. Go out in the streets and ask them if they have ever heard of Guy de Maupassant. No? Bam, you're dead. Have you ever heard of Bessie Smith? No? Bam, you're dead. Beyond that, I think it is really smartass of me to be cranky at people for not being as good as I want them to be. I have, I suppose, a very peculiar love-hate relationship with the human race. As a concept, the human race seems to be a very workable idea. When you get down to the individuals, most of them need a ball-peen hammer to the middle of their forehead to make them move even as a slow pony. I figure any species that is capable of writing "Moby-Dick" and painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling and putting people on the moon does not have to settle for novels by Judith Krantz, McDonald's toad burgers and movies like "Dumb and Dumberer." What is that Latin phrase? Spero melior -- I hope for better things. I have a very low tolerance threshold. It's one of my many, many flaws and I get cranky with people.

Nelson: Really?

Ellison: Oh, piss off. Jesus, Nelson.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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