Precious Cargo

Refreshingly Bitter And Twisted Observations On Life's Passing Parade.

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Location: Valley Village, California, United States

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Dreams With Sharp Teeth Harlan Ellison

Director Erik Nelson's documentary of Harlan Ellison, Dreams With Sharp Teeth, is Nelson's labor of love.

And that's precisely the problem. Nelson documents most of the major events of Ellison's life, often through Ellison's on-camera commentary. Unfortunately, Nelson doesn't ask the questions of Ellison that curious viewers such as myself would like to put to him.

I'll cite one instance. Ellison's one feature film screenplay that was produced was for the infamously bad film The Oscar (1966), adapted from Richard Sales' novel. Ellison acknowledges the fact that the film's badness killed his screenwriting career, but he doesn't explore why. He says he wrote it with Steve McQueen and Peter Falk in mind, but the studio cast Stephen Boyd and Tony Bennett instead.

I've seen The Oscar not long ago. The film is terrible for many reasons, including Boyd and Bennett, but if I replay the film in my mind's eye, cast with McQueen and Falk, it's still no good. Later in the documentary, Ellison takes the late director John Frankenheimer to task for proclaiming that directors really create a film, not screenwriters. Ellison says you can't make a good film from a bad script, but you can make a bad film from a good script. Is that an unconscious rationale for The Oscar's failure?

I would have asked Ellison if he thought his screenplay was good. Elsewhere, years ago, I recall Elison saying that one of the few lines of his script that stayed in the film was Tony Bennett's "When you lie down with pigs, you wake up smelling like garbage." Yet, I'm inclined to blame the screenplay for the film's failure. Since Ellison shared screen credit with Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene, I can't say he's solely responsible, but it bears more discussion, considering the importance of this episode in his life.

I also wish Nelson would have asked Ellison how he manages to stay afloat financially, espcially since Ellison makes the pregnant observation that it's not hard to write, but to stay a writer. Ellison admits that he won't put up with the strictures required to write for movies and TV, though I wonder who's asked him lately? His literary productivity seems to have diminished significantly since the '80s, and as he admitted to me recently in a phone call, he's scrambling for opportunities. So, another unasked queston.

This is by no means a bad documentary, but it strikes me as too much of an exercise in nostalgia for both Ellison and his fans.

Here's one reviewer who concurs with me.

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