Monday, March 4, 2013

The Wrath and Art of Harlan

There are some artists who not only don't compromise in their work, they don't even feel comfortable being accommodating  Shlomo Schwartzberg, writing in Critics at Large, examines the work of one of those iconoclasts, Harlan Ellison.

Writer Harlan Ellison: He Has A Mouth, and He Will Scream

Writer Harlan Ellison turns 78 today and if you don’t know who he is, you should. I mention his birthday, as well, because he’s dying, or at least that’s what he told The Daily Page in an interview in September 2010, just before his appearance at a science fiction convention in Wisconsin, reportedly his last public appearance. "The truth of what's going on here is that I'm dying," says Ellison, by phone. “I'm like the Wicked Witch of the West – I'm melting. I began to sense it back in January. By that time, I had agreed to do the convention. And I said, I can make it. I can make it. My wife has instructions that the instant I die, she has to burn all the unfinished stories. And there may be a hundred unfinished stories in this house, maybe more than that. There's three quarters of a novel ... When I'm gone, that's it. What's down on the paper, it says 'The End,' that's it. 'Cause right now I'm busy writing the end of the longest story I've ever written, which is me."

Now it’s not for me to question Ellison’s comments – as of this writing, he’s still around nearly two years later – and his health problems are likely quite serious – he had a crucial heart bypass operation in 1996. Nor has he published an original collection of stories since Slippage in 1997 (Troublemakers, his 2001 collection was mostly made up of previously published material with new introductions aimed at a younger demographic who likely didn’t know his work.) But this is not what this post is all about. It’s a celebration of one of America ’s most unique, uncompromising and fascinating talents, who’s been a constant in my life since high school.

I don’t remember exactly how I stumbled upon Ellison’s work, but I still recall how startled and excited a young woman was when I was in CEGEP (Grade 12 and Grade 13 in my home province of Quebec) and she spotted one of his books on my desk. That was my first glimmer of understanding that people who do know Harlan Ellison’s writing are not indifferent to it. I sensed, too, at the time that Ellison was Jewish like me. There was something about his passion and his determination to make things right in the world, which was so apparent in his books. (That’s otherwise known as Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, a Jewish mandate actually.) Turns out I was right, but unlike myself who grew up in relatively safe and accepting surroundings – I can count the few anti-Semitic incidents I’ve experienced on the fingers of my two hands, in both Montreal and Toronto – Harlan most decidedly did not. Growing up in the 1930s and 40s in the small town of Painesville, Ohio, where his was the only Jewish family in town, he was constantly tormented for being Jewish, regularly beaten up, preached at and made to feel unwelcome. (Tragically, he also witnessed his father dropping dead of a heart attack in 1949 when Harlan was only fifteen years old.) He got through it, of course, and takes great delight in pointing out that his chief tormentor, one Jack Wheeldon, died young, but it formed him into a man who knew exactly what he wanted, didn’t take shit from anyone and, god forbid, if you crossed him in any way, made you pay dearly for your temerity. (If Ellison still drove and had a bumper sticker on his car, it likely would read You Don’t Fuck with Ellison!)  My favourite incident of this nature remains his suing filmmaker James Cameron after the director boasted that he’d borrowed much of the storyline of The Terminator (1984) from Ellison’s script for The Outer Limits episodes "Soldier" (the similarities between the two are obvious and startling) and "Demon With the Glass Hand". Ellison sued, received a settlement ($100,000 is the figure I read), and then when the crawl that acknowledged the connection between his script and Cameron’s movie was (accidentally!) omitted from the film’s first video release, sued again and garnered another $100,000 for his efforts. (As I said, you don’t fuck with Ellison.) That’s just one example of Ellison’s protectiveness of his copyright (he’s now copyrighted his name, incidentally). I don’t want to tell you what he did when a publisher crossed him and inserted a cigarette ad into one his story collections. (Hint, it involved a dead gopher, sent by Second Class mail.) But it should be clear by now that this is one man who cares passionately about his work, his rights and abiding by one’s word.

He also doesn’t suffer fools gladly, which is an understatement. Here’s the reporting of an incident in his career, from David Hughes’ book The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made (I, like Harlan, hate that abbreviation for science fiction (SF is preferred), but that’s what the book is called). One of many writers and directors called in when the first Star Trek movie was being considered, Ellison proposed an intricate, complex tale wherein the crew of the Starship Enterprise had to decide whether they had the moral right to wipe out another species in order to preserve the world as they knew it and humankind’s domination of it. The film was to take place at the dawn of time. But one clueless studio executive then proposed, since he’d read and enjoyed Erich von Daniken’s silly bookChariots of the Gods about alien exploration of Earth in the past, that Mayans figure into the equation somehow. When Harlan pointed out that there were no Mayans at the dawn of the time, said executive said no one would know the difference. “I’m gong to know the difference,” exploded Ellison. Things got worse from then on in, ending with Ellison responding to the threat that if he wanted to write the picture, Mayans had to be included by exclaiming, “'I’m a writer, I don’t know what the fuck you are!' And I got up and walked out. And that was the end of my association with the Star Trek movie.”

That’s actually a pretty mild retort, by Harlan’s standards, but certainly our loss as the first Star Trekmovie was a real dud. Ellison, of course, also wrote the episode from the original Star Trek series, entitled "The City on the Edge of Forever", wherein Kirk and Spock had to let a charismatic woman (played by Joan Collins) die or change our time-line forever. It’s still considered (and not just by me) to be the finest single episode of the show ever written. Harlan being Harlan, still wasn’t entirely satisfied with the final result (as you can read in 1995’s Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever, which details his fights with show creator Gene Roddenberry and actor William (“James T. Kirk”) Shatner over elements of his script.), but he didn’t hate the screenplay enough to take his name off of it and stick on Cordwainer Bird, his dreaded nom de plume for anything he feels has been destroyed beyond recognition. He did, however, sue Paramount Pictures for his cut of the merchandising rights from the episode and won an undisclosed settlement. (Did I mention that he likes to sue on a regular basis? Usually with good cause, I might add.)

Joan Collins & William Shatner in City on the Edge of Forever
One has to distinguish between Ellison’s work for television, which is often tampered with (to its detriment, as in the case of the compromised Canadian SF series The Starlost), and his literary output, which rarely is. There’s also the danger that his rambunctious personality and aggressive, albeit necessary, manner can overshadow his great writing and books and, too often, define him as a caricature of an angry young (old) man. That would be a shame, as it is his work which should be the main and only criteria on how to judge him, and by that measure, there’s so much worth reading by him that I hardly know where to begin.

He’s crafted some (award-winning) classic and iconic stories of the science fiction genre, including “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”, “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World”, “'Repent, Harlequin!', Said the Ticktockman”, “From A to Z, in the Chocolate Alphabet”, “The Deathbird”, “A Boy and His Dog” (made into a nifty 1976 movie by L.Q. Jones), “Jeffty is Five’”, ''Shatterday", and “How’s The Night Life on Cissalda?”, among so many others. Those tales play with science fiction tropes, such as dystopias, computer domination, time travel, but with an original Ellison spin on them – they’re tales that are painful, compelling, angry, satirical, imaginative and provocative in equal measures. But he’s also written tough-minded mainstream short stories, such as “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”, his cry of horror at the real life 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, brutalized by her New York rapist/ killer over a long period of time while residents of her apartment block, hearing her screams for help, supposedly did nothing. (I say supposedly, because there’s some question of whether they actually knew what was happening, but I don’t think its hard to believe the basic reality of the murder and Ellison’s story, as such callous events have occurred at other times. In any case, the 'facts’ don’t take away from the emotional power of Ellison’s story.) Other terrific stories of his have dealt with racial and religious prejudices, “Daniel White for the Greater Good”, which was praised by literary wit Dorothy Parker, no less, who felt it surpassed anything she’d ever written on the subject (You can read about that in the intro to Ellison’s’ collection Gentleman Junkie and Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation (1961), and the semi- autobiographical “Final Shtick”, about a Jewish comedian who’s hidden his background but is forced to deal with the anti-Semitism of his past when he returns to his home town. Harlan also, daringly went undercover in a gang while researching his fascinating, illuminating book Web of the City (1958), and committed at least one morally questionable act while in the role of hoodlum, a typically honest confession by a man who never stints on telling the truth even when it makes him look bad.

Then there’s his work as an important editor. Dangerous Visions, which is celebrating the 45th anniversary of its 1967 groundbreaking release, is justly celebrated still as perhaps the most important science fiction anthology ever put out, one which featured key writers (such as Philip JosĂ© Farmer, Norman Spinrad, Samuel Delaney, and Theodore Sturgeon), pushing the envelope of SF when it sorely needed to grow up and challenge its readers. He followed that one up with the equally important Again, Dangerous Visions (1972) but, alas never delivered on the proposed final anthology in the trilogy, to be called The Last Dangerous Visions. He jokes about it – writers are still waiting for their long-ago sold stories to see the light of day – but I suspect he simply got in over his head on delivering one more mammoth undertaking of the sort involved in putting the first two anthologies together.

But while I’m an enormous fan of Ellison’s fiction, I think it’s as an essayist that he especially shines. And it’s what I remember most when I first started reading him. (I pretty much pick up any publication or book that has something by or about him in it, with the result that nearly one whole bookshelf is devoted to his writings alone.)  He’s incredibly confessional and open, whether it’s tallying the number of women he’s slept with when a girlfriend asked him (over 500, but don’t judge him on what that means psychologically, he won’t have it), or movingly describing his loving if distant relationship with his mother and conversely, his estrangement from his conservative older sister Beverly. Other superb essays of his have examined the (often shocking) intrusions of science fiction fans into their favourite writers’ lives (that one, "Xenogenesis" caused quite a fuss in genre circles when it was published in Asimov’s Science Fictionmagazine); the beneficial societal effects of the '60s, despite popular culture's disavowal of that; and the new found respectability of comic books and his memories of them as a kid. It was radio and comics that first exercised his vast imagination. Overall, reading his essays in such seminal collections as Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed (1984), which contains his rumination/eulogy about his mother Serena Rosenthal Ellison; or An Edge in My Voice (1985), which includes a highly disturbing essay about Ellison’s stalker and how he got back at him, has given me such a vivid sense of the man that I almost feel I know him better than some of my closest friends. He certainly gets under people’s skin; his superb book of TV criticism The Glass Teat (1970), which collected the columns he wrote for the alternative Los Angeles Free Press newspaper, got him into big trouble with the Nixon administration when he wrote that Vice President Spiro T. Agnew masturbated with copies of Reader’s Digest, so much so that he claims in the intro to his follow-up book of criticism The Other Glass Teat (1975) that Nixon and Agnew made sure that The Glass Teat was pretty much banned under pressure from Nixon, et al. (I believe him; Nixon was thinner-skinned than most Presidents, and Agnew was a bully and a thug. Fittingly, Nixon's visage adorns one of the gargoyles perched atop Ellison's not so humble California abode, cleverly nicknamed Ellison Wonderland.) But that’s Ellison, as he puts it, hot water is his natural element.

Of course, to get into hot water on such a regular basis, you have to actually get up off your ass and do things. Doing nothing is not and never has been Ellison’s way. He marched for civil rights in Selma in 1965, when few celebrities and artists did, and ended up in jail for his troubles. (I’d love to know what he makes of Barack Obama’s victory as President, but he’s cynical enough to likely feel that it doesn’t mean as much as it should in terms of racial progress in his country.) He boycotted states which refused to ratify the never-adopted Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would have been a game-changing, landmark feminist document if it had ever been passed. And he’s been fiercely loyal to his friends, usually fellow writers, when he feels they’ve been wronged (Robert Silverberg, a major writer in his own right and one of Ellison’s oldest buddies, has, only half-jokingly, said that Ellison would kill for him if need be.)

Ellison Taking No Prisoners
Not surprisingly, someone as volatile as Ellison is just as often on the outs with any number of people, not all of whom he is suing. (He can build friends up so high that they invariably disappoint him when they slip up, one way or another.) I won’t go into details here – you can find out about his various contretemps for yourself on Wikipedia) and I, too, have heard stories of his flipping out on people and after haranguing them verbally, calling back later to apologize when he realized he’d gone too far. But my own experiences with him have been benign and gratifying even though I was so intimidated the first time I interviewed him in university that I only took five minutes of my allotted 10-minute interview time over the phone. (I have his home phone number, but so does anyone who wants to have it; he won’t make himself inaccessible to his good friends, but I wouldn’t advise calling him just to gush or bother him.) I’ve interviewed him three times, the last when he turned 60 in 1994, and have met him twice in person, once when he came to lecture at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute (now Ryerson University) on a very snowy February evening, if I recall, adverse weather which still didn't deter his many fans from showing up, and another when he appeared at a local science fiction convention (I treasure a photo of myself and him where he's pointing to one of my Censorwatch columns, a gig I had at the Toronto Star exposing the vagaries and idiocies of provincial film censorship. That’s up Harlan’s alley, even though he’s rather weak as a film critic (Harlan Ellison’s Watching (1989), regretably the only book of his which I have personally autographed.) Each time I observed a generous friendly guy who patiently signed autographs and spoke to his fans for hours, even as I left to go home. He also, and I’m kvelling here, particularly complimented me for simply calling him a writer and not ghettoizing him as a science fiction scribe – which many do and which he hates – and then listing his credentials in all fields. Believe me, you want praise from the guy and not the reverse. I still remember how intimidated the late Toronto film critic John Harkness was simply being on the same panel as Harlan. He was muttering to himself how glad he was that it wasn’t Harkness vs. Ellison.

I don’t doubt that Ellison can be his own worst enemy. Walking off The Twilight Zone show, on CBS in 1985 when an anti-Santa Claus Christmas episode, called "Nackles", which he wrote was prevented from airing at the holiday season, still strikes me as biting off your nose to spite your face, since as consultant to the series he got so much good stuff on air. ("Nackles" never was completed and, reportedly, was to be Ellison's directorial debut,)  His experience as creative consultant to J. Michael Straczynski's excellent '90s SF show Babylon 5 was much better. But being who he is, you can’t really expect him to behave any other way. I prefer to think of Harlan Ellison as a cranky old Jew (his description of himself in Erik Nelson's fine documentary on him Dreams with Sharp Teeth (2008), which I suggested for Toronto’s Hot Docsdocumentary film festival) who still fights the good fight. His output has trailed off for the most part and, sadly, he’s developed the distressing tendency of overwriting some of his stories (His most recent 2010 Nebula Award winner, “How Interesting: A Tiny Man”, which tied for short story, is one of his lesser efforts, but fortunately not badly written. It was his fourth Nebula, which is annually given out, in several categories, by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Ellison was also honoured as Grand Master by the organization in 2006.) But we’ll always have his incisive and poignant stories (check out one of his longest ones, “The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap-Wedgie” in his Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled (1968), a Marilyn Monroe-like story of a lost soul in Hollywood, which is unforgettable) and indelible essay collections. His original compilations, Shatterday (1980) and Angry Candy (1988), with a memorable introduction where Harlan rails against the loss of so many friends and influences in a short time, are still in print (and my 'staff picks', along with Dangerous Visions, at the bookstore where I work), but you can find any number of his books in used bookstores and online. The Essential Ellison collects a representative sample of his output over a 50 year career spanning interval, and is the perfect introduction to his work. (I'm still kicking myself for not purchasing a (pricey) autographed limited special edition of the book when I had the chance.) You can also hear the man expounding about literature and life and numerous other subjects on a collection of six CDs, entitled On The Road with Ellison and put out byDeep Shag records. I own the first one on vinyl and it's an apt reminder of how passionate, cutting and, indeed, funny, Ellison can be.

Harlan with wife Susan

I don’t know how much longer Harlan has left – my own feeling is that the Angel of Death is scared shitless to try and take him away – but like the similarly uncompromising late filmmaker Robert Altman and late musician Frank Zappa, this utterly distinctive American artist should be cherished and exalted. He’s won a slew of awards, including from the writers' organization PEN, for his work promoting freedom of speech, but he's still not as well known as he should be, if he’s known at all by your average reader. Nor should he have to pass away before that happens. But either way, he matters, not just while he’s alive as he suggested in one of his acknowledgements, but for many years after. Hopefully, he'll still be with us for a very long time. Or as the Yiddish expression puts it, Biz a Hoondred oon Tzvuntzig (May you live to be 120)! Now that I think on it, with all he’s accomplished, professionally and personally, he kind of has. Happy Birthday Harlan and many more to come!

- originally published on May 27, 2012 in Critics at Large.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

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