BookGeek: Harlan Ellison's Watching
Having met the man several times, I shudder to imagine Harlan Ellison's responses to my reviews. Rest assured, Ghost of Harlan, that I do sincerely love and respect the art of filmmaking as well as literature and the craft of writing, so I will nervously skate past your rant about reviewer dilettantes drooling on unworthy fare.
If you met him, you know Harlan Ellison can rant about almost anything. This collection of his column, "Watching," covers the gamut of much of the 1980s in film with a not-inconsiderable number of detours and digressions. At least half a column is devoted, at one point, to showering annoyance at the letter-writers insisting that his column should be canceled, as it was arguably one of the most popular items in the magazine.
It's funny to me that as much as I disagreed with Harlan on so many things, his language still manages to fascinate me. He hated Back to the Future, Star Wars and almost everything Steven Spielberg ever did, and loved Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Kubrick's version of The Shining.Odds are we would have argued a great deal at the movie theater if I hadn't been petrified of him. (It's hard to argue with your idols.)
And yet it is the language that kept me reading, even when I was shaking my head, "No, Harlan, you've got it all wrong..." His diatribes on separating art from artist, the cultural and political implications behind art, his analysis of the complexity in popular culture, these were all fascinating even when he argued that Star Trek: The Motionless Picture was art. (To be fair, he also said it was woebegone and predictable, riddled with plot hols and stultifying in pace, all of which are true.) But then he who had a love-hate-hate with Trek all his career encapsulated its abiding principle with this:
...the unswervable dedication to the concept that the youthful human race is intrinsically noble and capable of living with equanimity in the universe. It is an important thought, and one that is denied in both Star Wars and Close Encounters. Unlike these previously adored 'sci-fi' simplicities, Star Trek: TMP does not tell us that we are too base, too dull and too venal to save ourselves and to prevail in an uncaring universe without the help of some kind of bogus Jesus-Saves Force or a Pillsbury Doughboy in a galactic chandelier. It says we are the children of Creation and if we are courageous, ethical and steadfast we can achieve our place in the light of many suns. I take that to be a worthy message.
This is a message rarely seen in the reviews of Star Trek movies or shows, and one that better expresses its themes than most of those carrying its torch today. (Also, he hated when starships make whoosh sounds in space, which knocked out most 1980s sci-fi for him.)
For The War Lord by Franklin Schaffner, he actually walked out. "It is the most obstinately endless film ever made. It has all the appeal of attendance at a snails' convention." I would steal this phrase for certain deadly-dull "classics" if I wasn't afraid Harlan's ghost would backhand me upside the head for the theft.
In a review of Les Carabiniers (1963), which was apparently quite popular with high-end critics, he compares the film to 2001 as an "exercise in directorial self-indulgence. It is, in many ways, an exercise in idiocy. Life is too short. To be bored for even seventy-nine minutes is too long. I await the thunk of poison-tipped arrows."
Other movies got his poison pen: "a village idiot of a movie," or "the cinematic equivalent of Hitler's Russian campaign."
I highlighted his analysis of why some (most?) of the movies made from Stephen King novels are terrible. Certainly they were in the time he was writing the column, before movies like The Green Mile or The Shawshank Redemption began to change the reading public's view of King's work. I have often written that King's work is best understood as about one thing on top and something else underneath, which Harlan said much more clearly:
[Carrie] was the essence of the secret of Stephen King's phenomenal success: the everyday experience raised to the mythic level by the application of fantasy to a potent cultural trope. It was Jungian archetype goosed with ten million volts of emotional power. It was the commonly-shared horrible memory of half the population, reinterpreted. It was the flash of recognition, the miracle of that rare instant in which readers dulled by years of reading artful lies felt their skin stretched tight by an encounter with artful truth.
I hope one day I can write a review that well.
Despite the poison pen for movies he considered too stupid - which discounts 90 percent of the dreck in the cineplex - his fondness for the art form of cinema shines through (and uses his own singular feature film, The Oscar, as an example of the worst of the lot).
Let us speak of guilty pleasures, and of outre nights at the cinema. Of windows nailed shut in the soul, and of dreadful dreams we would pay never to have again. Of winds that blow out of our skulls, carrying with them the sounds of sparrows singing in the eaves of madhouses. Of chocolate decadence, sleek limbs, cheap adventure novels, people we ought not to have anything to do with, and the reflection off the blade.
What was he writing about? Does it matter? Okay, it matters a little, and it's an interesting discussion of whether violence in film and television encourages or inspires violence in real life, which is a different column.
But the language, the voice, the attention to the words as Neil Gaiman once said of him... "You hear them in your head, and they sing."