Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Dreams of Harlan Ellison

Last night I went back to The Philoctetes Center to see a new documentary about Harlan Ellison called Dreams with Sharp Teeth. Ellison is a writer whose works are genre bending but one could say that he writes science fiction/fantasy, mainly short fiction. The only thing that I knew about Harlan Ellison was that he had written the only Star Trek episode that I've ever seen City on the Edge of Forever. So I had no expectations about this film or what I might learn which I think might have been a good thing.

I came away fascinated with him as a person and wanting to immediately go out and read some of his work. He's 74 years old now, and he has an energy and a spirit that are palpable. Maybe I found myself liking him because in the clips of himself as a younger man, he looked like an extremely crankly Michael J. Fox. Or maybe I related to his stories about being picked on as a kid and being beaten up repeatedly. Anyone who has experienced abuse at the hands of their peers can understand why he may have grown up to be a slightly bitter old man.

Even though I haven't read any of his work, seeing this film and hearing him talking about writing, it made me realize more than ever how important it is to read outside of the genre that you write in because you can learn from all kinds of writers. After the film, Carol Cooper who is a critic for the Village Voice among other publications, talked about what it was like to work for him for a week at the Clarion Writer's Workshop. His method of teaching is the tear the writer apart and then build them back up approach which I personally don't agree with because I think it is abusive. Which is interesting because in a sense he's treating people the way that he was treated. That's kind of f*&$#d up in a sense. He also apparently tells students to forget writing as a profession which is also what happened to him in college. I guess because he then went out to prove that professor wrong, he wants students to do the same to him, if they are really determined to be a writer.

He can also be belligerant with fans, occasionally. I'm sure there are quite a few romance writers who if they saw this film would cringe at the way that he treats them, with a mixture of contempt and exasperation at times. He seems to see them as a necessary evil because at least they had the good sense to buy his work, but I don't think he particularly likes them as people or most people in general for that matter, and when I say people I mean as a whole.

The best part of the film was when he talked about watching the game The Weakest Link. A young woman was asked the question "Which S who was in Lawrence of Arabia wrote a long running newspaper column about bridge?" The woman's answer? Naomi Campbell! That is so wrong on so many levels, a) She wasn't in Lawrence of Arabia, b) I don't think she knows what bridge is unless it's crossing a river, and c) Her last name doesn't start with S. The only thing I can think of is that because Campbell is considered a supermodel, well that starts with S. Ellison said that he and his wife now use it as a catchphrase whenever anyone asks a question, they answer 'Naomi Campbell.'

I did agree with him that writing is incredibly hard work. Some days it goes extremely well and some days or weeks it sucks totally. I was trying to articulate to cutie pie author why I responded so enthusiastically to this film and the one on Louise Bourgeois than the other two that I had seen on Philip Glass and Robert Wilson. I think because in many ways Glass and Wilson were still as enigmatic to me after the film as they were before the film and I certainly had no desire to run out and buy a CD of Glass's music or to see the next project that Robert Wilson directed. Even at times it seemed that Ellison was doing his cranky man shtick you still sensed that he meant every word that he said. And the scenes of him reading excerpts from his work was particularly good. From the little I've heard, it appears that his writing is very similar to Hemingway's in its spareness.

Anyway I enjoyed this film and it was more fun than sitting at home watching The Bachelorette (more on that show tomorrow.)

Stay warm (the temp has gone down here),

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