A non-fiction portrait of acclaimed, polarizing author Harlan Ellison, Dreams with Sharp Teeth doesn't attempt to conclusively explain how its subject came to be who he is. Avoiding a simple, chronological cause-and-effect recitation of the various noteworthy events of his life, Erik Nelson's engaging documentary instead opts to merely present the writer in all his arrogant, combative, cantankerous glory, interspersing Ellison's diatribes about writing, television and religion (among many other topics) with comments from admiring friends (including Robin Williams and Neil Gaiman) and segments in which Ellison reads passages from some of his most renowned works ("'Repent Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," "Spider Kiss") in front of cheesy computer-generated backgrounds. Less intent on investigating than simply depicting, it's neither a definitive statement on his canon nor on his fantastically interesting life but, rather, an intimate portrait of a now-73-year-old artist who, as Gaiman sums up, is "partly one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century...and partly an alternately impish and furious 11-year-old boy. Or possibly 9-year-old boy. Or possibly 5-year-old boy."
Twenty-five years in the making, Nelson's film spends requisite time allowing Ellison to discuss his childhood as an oft-bullied Jewish "pencil-neck geek" in anti-Semitic Painesville, Ohio, a difficult upbringing that soon led him to repeatedly run away from home for random adventures (such as driving a truck full of dynamite) that, in turn, furthered his already thriving compulsion to write. His career proper began in 1955 New York City, was interrupted by conscripted military service, and then recommenced in Los Angeles, where he's lived for years in a fabulously unique house known as "The Lost Aztec Temple of Mars" full of strange passageways and abundant books, posters and collectibles that reflect the man's wide-ranging interests. Often categorized as an author of science fiction, Ellison's preferred term "speculative fiction" far more accurately describes his genre-defying work, which helped make him, in the '60s and '70s, a literary celebrity notorious for both his fondness for female company (Ellison claims to have bedded over 700 women, though he's been happily married to his fifth wife for 20 years) and for a decidedly nasty streak.
It's this latter facet, even more than his groundbreaking fiction, non-fiction and television writing (for The Outer Limits and Star Trek) that has defined Ellison's public persona, as his utter inability to suffer fools gladly - whether they be fawning fans, cowardly authors, publishing and broadcasting industry sycophants, Republicans, or everyday people - has made him as many enemies as friends. "I'm a tough pill to swallow," Ellison admits toward the end of Dreams with Sharp Teeth, a point convincingly made by prior rants about writers who don't demand payment for their work, editors who harp about deadlines, and the inanity of religion (he's an unabashed atheist). Ellison's anger isn't all-consuming, as confirmed by a surprisingly tender moment in which he tears up while watching a home movie of his deceased father placing a hand on his young son's shoulder. And via current and archival interviews, Nelson persuasively pinpoints this fury as the byproduct of a conviction that people should fiercely engage life, as well as fearlessly push themselves past safe, comfortable borders ("You Must Never Be Afraid to Go There" is an Ellison line that closes the film) so as to realize their full potential.
Although Dreams with Sharp Teeth finds the author's confrontation bluntness, impatience, and general crankiness more refreshing than off-putting, it nonetheless also puts on view his less gracious and charitable tendencies. More admirable than its warts-and-all approach, however, is its unwillingness to partake in the type of mundane, simplistic psychology that's increasingly become the mainstream documentary form's stock and trade. Nelson recognizes Ellison to be a multifaceted person incapable of being easily summed up or pigeonholed, and thus crafts a leisurely portrait of the man's many, sometimes contradictory sides. As evidenced by its refusal to try to detail the reasons why Ellison's marriage to fifth wife Susan has withstood the test of time, the film comprehends and accepts the complexity of its exceptional, iconoclastic subject, ultimately proving more content to hang out with Ellison - who, throughout, displays not only formidable brains and wit but a quite canny knack for introspection - than systematically pick him apart and put him back together like a jigsaw puzzle.
For another take on Dreams with Sharp Teeth, see Jette's review from SXSW.