Dark fantasist Harlan Ellison is an anomaly: a writer working in the most collaborative of mediums (television and film) who sees his words as sacrosanct, an award-winning short story writer who demystified his art by practicing it publicly in bookstore windows, and a controversial social critic who came to prominence in the revolutionary '60s, yet doesn't drink or do drugs and still has a strong connection to the comics, movies and books of his childhood in the '30s and '40s.
He's also a verbal virtuoso, both on the page and off, with a seemingly never-ending stream of anecdotes and stories about his life. Constantly bullied as a child, he left home in his teens for a life on the road, working jobs in carnivals, driving a dynamite truck and eventually selling stories to pulp magazines in the '50s at a penny a word.
He moved to Los Angeles in the '60s, wrote for television, found his voice as a short story writer, and became one of the key figures in the new wave of speculative fiction that coincided with the counterculture. His anthology "Dangerous Visions" was a taboo-smashing collection that proved a call to arms to a new generation of writers.
Erik Nelson, producer of Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, has been interviewing Ellison for over two decades, and he knows his subject very well, even if he had to withstand torrents of verbal abuse from Ellison, some of which are included in the film. His use of Richard Thompson's jaunty Django-esque music score is tasteful and succinct, and reflects the nostalgia that Ellison has for the music of his youth.
At one point Ellison's friend Neil Gaiman observes that there's still a bit of the little boy in the 72-year-old, and in the few glimpses of his home, dubbed "Ellison Wonderland," with its faux Martian exterior and numerous nooks and crannies stuffed with cultural accumulations of a lifetime, it does seem he's built himself the most elaborate boy's clubhouse a 10-year-old could ever dream of.
As a reader of Ellison's fiction, one could quibble with the excerpts chosen for him to perform and the way they are presented. He reads the climax of his classic "Repent, Harlequin Said the Tick Tock Man!" out of context; other readings are simply extra features on the DVD. Ellison's hyperbolic reading style suits the stories well (he has experience as both an actor and a stand-up comic), though some of Nelson's special-effects backdrops don't really add much. It's all about the words, as it should be.
Harlan Ellison is a force of nature, and Nelson can only capture a small part of his outsized personality in the hour-and-a-half film. Ultimately, though, it is a film more than worthy of its subject.