Harlan Ellison’s Watching (Reissue)
Harlan Ellison. Milwaukee: M Press, 2008 (1989). Paperback, $12.95, 465pp.
We want to believe that great writing happens in solitude, during nighttime hours in which genius quietly flourishes. But many writers attest that thoughtful feedback can help make something good become great. In On Writing, Stephen King says that the common writer who can’t share his drafts should head straight to a vanity press.
Yet — quite frustrating to the rest of us — some authors don’t need King’s advice. They write for a universe of one, and others may enter at their own will. Modernists like Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner operated thus until readers could catch up to their stylistic innovations.
Harlan Ellison, who came along during what literary critics call the postmodern era, has taken pride in breaking the rules. The distinctive style of his short fiction reads as convention-wary and self-reflexive. His trademark imaginative stories, which have encouraged critics to label him a “speculative writer” (though much of his work was written for genre markets), are dense on the small and broader scales. The long, tortuous sentences are ready to run right past the full stop and wander into a Barthelme-style prose poem. Yet Ellison uses rhythm and style to marry the madcap with the elegant. He seems to have developed in defiance of the writing community.
Ellison’s body of essays, which is almost as prolific as his fiction, doesn’t sacrifice his ingenuity in prose. His non-fiction reads with the immediacy of a freewriting exercise, and at times displays that kind of thought process. Any topic that intrigues or irks him (more often, the latter) is worth musing on.
Ellison came to scriptwriting early in his career, and began covering film and television at about the same time. His essay collections The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat were gifts to ’60s-era intellectuals bemused with the persuasive but less inspiring medium of television. In the columns collected in these two books, Ellison held the creators of programs accountable for excess and simplemindedness. Rarely does he focus on one subject in these essays, preferring to address any topic that wanders into frame. We cannot call these pieces review essays — any critique of a program is outweighed by opinions and sundry tube-related topics. Throughout his career, he remained on the watch. Like Borges, another imaginative mind on the cultural lookout, Ellison covered and processed it all, from high brow to low, from the classics to the comics.
A self-proclaimed “movie freak,” Ellison covered film as early as 1951, and in the 1960s became a regular reviewer at Cinema magazine. He didn’t seem comfortable writing the traditional review. In a series for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the ’70s and ’80s, he moved to dense, kitchen-sink articles, a format that cleared room for the loose Ellison style.
His film criticism, from the beginnings through the ’80s, is collected in Harlan Ellison’s Watching, a hefty reissue chock full of tasty bites. Like the first edition, Watching drops off at 1989, though I doubt that Ellison, still alive and kicking, hasn’t written about film since. The bulk of the text lists all of his entries of the MFSF’sseries, from which this collection took its title. While serving well as a reader — an extensive index guides us through the numerous topics — Ellison’s “Watching” series shows unexpected continuity. The author walks us through moviegoing in the post-1970s Spielberg/Lucas age and takes to issue releases that regurgitated the old-school fantastic journey. As the publication’s title suggests, Ellison mainly covered genre films but also managed to chime in about everything else he viewed. For the writer, it was a dark age in film, when the needs of sugar-charged brats guided many a studio project, and Ellison responded in his well-known combative, polemical style.
Yet he also found some gems in the dank ’80s mainstream. Who would have thought that Ellison, who reviles the Spielbergians Joe Dante and Christopher Columbus and even pans Back to the Future, would champion Ghostbusters? In this entry, the author indulges in escapism, and when he notes that the film could have been scripted by Lovecraft, the thought gives us enough pause to consider he may be right. Less surprisingly, he champions Alex Cox’s Repo Man and Gilliam’s Brazil, since these narratives show the loose-cannon spirit of Ellison’s fiction that the author himself couldn’t quite bring to his own scriptwriting (mostly for television).
For Ellison, a positive review is always a rave, as friend Leonard Maltin notes in his introduction to the book. Ellison champions a film as if he’s about to abandon the world of letters for a life in the movies. His Cinema review of Rosemary’s Baby, a film he couldn’t love more, is the polar opposite of his scathing pans. Ellison the critic operates at two ends of the universe, but his effortless reach to both accounts for much of the joy of this book.
Though this bi-polarity has its limits. In all his commentary, whether he loves or deplores his subject, Ellison hardly ever includes a plot summary. It seems that his own responses are too pressing, and that he wants no part in providing a cheat for readers who can’t get to the theater. This style restrains most of his Cinema reviews but energizes his freewheeling contributions to the MFSF.
If only Ellison looked at films more extensively. In some uncharacteristic MFSFentries, he details the gestation, birth, demise, and merit of David Lynch’s Dune, in a gripping account of a studio’s attempt at grandeur. Watching also includes a longer account of 2001 and an extensive piece on the first Star Trek film — the author wrote a trademark episode, “City on the Edge of Forever,” for the original series — but, alas, not much more. A book-length collection of such essays should be more selective, striving to match the transcendence of Ellison tales like “Paladin of the Lost Hour” or “Mephisto in Onyx.” The critical Ellison mostly comes in fragments, tasty if not the grand cuisine.