Sunday, February 01, 2009

Harlan Ellison's Watching

Reading Harlan Ellison’s Watching (M Press, 2008 - reissue), I couldn’t help thinking that it must be exhausting to be Harlan Ellison. Despite his unimpeachable credentials as one of the greatest living science fiction / fantasy writers of our time (he has produced 7 novels, 6 graphic novels, hundreds of memorable short stories, and served brief stints on The Outer Limits, the original Star Trek series and the mid-80s Twilight Zone resurrection), he is perhaps best known to the younger generation as an outspoken curmudgeon who seems to fault with everything.

Over the years, he has made more than his fair share of enemies in Hollywood by speaking his mind about the sorry state of the American cinema, and his published opinions are gathered together in this omnibus of “essays in the realm of film criticism.” The goal of the essays, Ellison says, is not to evaluate films for their entertainment value or storytelling ability (though he rightly blasts Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 for its utter failure to tell a story) but as art and artifacts of our distinct culture. “No film is ever made in a vacuum,” he claims, “It is a murky shadow in the cultural mirror.” Suffice it to say that he doesn’t always like what he sees in the mirror, which leads to a fair amount of fire-breathing.

Ellison’s career as a film critic began in the late 1960s, with attacks on popular films that he felt were “lying” to the American public – presenting old-fashioned values that contradicted the zeitgeist of a new age. He hit his stride as a critic over a decade later, when he began railing against the mindless blockbuster fantasies that defined the children of the 80s. Throughout the decade, his criticism is unusually incisive – as when he points out an undercurrent of mean-spiritedness in a string of family-oriented films from Steven Spielberg (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins and The Goonies). He responds to dishonest filmmaking as if it was intended as a personal attack against him, and does so with an always-entertaining sense of humor.

In his very first film review, he notes that John Frankenheimer’s The Train is “unlike much of what makes money these seasons” in that it “does not pass through the viewer like beets through a baby’s backside.” A few articles later, a lesser film “has all the appeal of attendance at a snails’ convention.” One actress receives a particularly harsh drubbing: he compares her singing to “the pathetic burbling of a titmouse drowning in a milk pitcher.” Entertaining as it is, one cannot say that the humor is lighthearted. Who else but Harlan Ellison could get so angry over Back to the Future? He calls Robert Zemeckis’s time-travel fantasy “flapdoodle,” “ka-ka,” a “piece of drippy dreck,” and “a celluloid thing as trivial as a twinkie.” His main reason for hating the film: “The lofty time paradox possibilities are reduced to the imbecile level of a sitcom.”

He’s right, of course. Even as a child I realized that the repercussions of time travel, as explained in the film itself, should be more complicated than the plot demonstrates. Such cop-outs, for Ellison, are symptomatic of brain-dead “sci-fi” (a term he loathes), and they undermine his willingness to suspend disbelief. Obviously, that was not a problem for the children of the 80s… but this comes as no surprise to Ellison, who dismisses most of that generation as “Know-Nothing Tots” raised on MTV’s sound and fury signifying nothing. With his trademark acerbic wit, he condescendingly instructs his readers on the lost art of satire, dismisses the silly pretentiousness of the auteur theory (Peter Bogdanovich serves as whipping boy in several essays) and lambasts the contradictory laziness of homage. At the end of the day, he is far more committed to criticizing mainstream American moviegoers than any particular movie. At times, Ellison’s writing on film sounds like Hunter Thompson’s writing on sports – it’s more rant than review, and need not stick to the topic at all. That’s the initial appeal of his criticism: entertainment. But, like Thompson, Ellison is not just funny – he’s also whip-smart, and leaves you thinking.

He explains his critical method as follows: Good criticism is comprised of four elements – background information, general knowledge, sophisticated judgment, and (above all) affection for your subject. The last component is visible early in the collection when he discusses the influence of RKO producer Val Lewton, who cemented his love of the cinema at an early age. Ellison explains, “When I draw my last breath, and finally buy it… I’m going to pass up meeting Hemingway and Shakespeare and W.C. Fields and Bogart and Marta Toren first thing on my arrival, and ask to be directed to the alabaster palace in which Val Lewton is spending a happy eternity…. Oh, yeah. He’ll be in a palace. Got to be. Nobody who produced films like The Leopard Man… could be treated less respectfully by a benevolent God.” Generally, Ellison praises “people stories,” “films that cast some new light on the human condition.” This, he explains, is what makes great science fiction / fantasy. (Think of Ray Bradbury turning Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio into The Martian Chronicles.)

Which brings us to what he hates... a list so long that we have to confine ourselves to hitting only the highest notes. Steven Spielberg – as well his buddy George Lucas – take the most lumps in Watching. Ellison’s essay on Star Wars is bitter, ruthless, and thought-provoking. “The characters are comic strip stereotypes,” he complains, adding that the young audience won’t learn anything practically useful from them the way he learned from the fantasy serials of his own childhood. This is a highly debatable point, but it certainly offers an interesting critical stance from which to approach the original film and its sequels… and, if one is inclined, the state of American cinema since the rise of the summer blockbuster.

The comparably few 80s fantasies of which Ellison approves are certainly worth another look: Dune (one chapter deals with the making of this commercially-disastrous epic), Labyrinth (“a film made by adults that renews and revitalizes the perception of the world we had as children, yet operates on many other levels”), Return to Oz and Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home (which Ellison claims is the best in the series!). I may not agree with everything he says, but I’m happy to follow up on the recommendations of anyone who can be both passionate and organized in their thinking… not to mention anyone who has spent as much time creating memorable stories as he has criticizing them. Like the best of the films he discusses, Harlan Ellison’s Watching is worth thinking and talking about afterwards.

While I’m on the subject of good criticism, let me also point you toward the latest issue of a very worthwhile new online journal: The Modest Proposal

1 comment:

  1. I keep returning to the essays in this book and they make me laugh every time. Even though, like yourself, I do not always agree with Ellison, he is almost always entertaining.

    Good review.