Friday, May 17, 2013

Film Critic Hall of Fame: Harlan Ellison

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This is the first of what I hope will be an ongoing series of tributes to film critics that inspired me.

Whenever I feel frustrated, at a low ebb with my own writing and in need of some inspiration, I turn to Harlan Ellison’s movie reviews. Reading them always re-invigorates me and reminds me why I started writing about film in the first place – a passion for movies. One of the pivotal books of film criticism that inspired me was Harlan Ellison’s Watching, a collection of reviews culled mostly from his stint at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction during the 1980s. Before I was able to purchase a copy for myself, I must’ve checked it out the local library countless times. Having grown up on fantasy and SF films and television shows during the ‘80s, his book tapped a rich vein of genre fare that I loved dearly. Much to my surprise, horror and bemusement, he had no problem skewering as well as praising movies with equal amounts of passion that came as a shock after being weaned on issues of Starlog as a child. The now defunct magazine championed SF and fantasy with an uncritical eye save for a brief experiment with guest critics reviewing movies that did not last long. With Ellison, here was someone unafraid to savage movies I considered sacred, but in doing so he made think about them differently. Sometimes I agreed with his opinion, sometimes I didn’t. But let’s be honest; who agrees completely with their favorite critic?

Among his many achievements and hats he wears, Ellison has published a vast work of over 1,700 short stories, novellas, screenplays, teleplays, and essays. He’s been nominated and won all kinds of awards, chief among them the genre staples like the Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker and Edgar. Ellison is an outspoken critic of fantasy, horror and SF from the perspective of an insider. His self-proclaimed role in life is “to be a burr under the saddle,” and was famously described by author Robert Bloch as “the only living organism I know whose natural habitat is hot water.”

In the rather lengthy introduction to Harlan Ellison’s Watching, the veteran writer lays out his personal philosophy of film criticism. He feels that a critic should review films based on their “background, knowledge, sophistication and – most of all – affection.” Any decent film critic in his eyes should meet a minimal standard of cinematic knowledge. To this end, a critic “should love film. Should adore just going to the movies the way a kid adores going to the movies. Bearing with, a large measure of innocence; a large measure of I’ll sit here, you just do it to me.” Accordingly, a critic should also be willing to “savage that which is inept, dishonest, historically-corrupt, pretentious or simply meanspirited. That which demeans the art form. That which lies to the trusting audience.”

The inherent problem with writing film reviews, as Ellison sees it, is that “one is limited. The word-pictures can only do so much,” lest they risk “robbing the movie-lover of the frisson of joyful discovery.” After all, “the critic can only go huzzah and huzzah so many times before it becomes white noise. The critic is limited in vocabulary, because beyond a certain point it becomes dangerous and boring, and then dangerously counterproductive. Dangerous, because nothing can live up to such panegyrics; boring, because what can one say after one says don’t miss it?” This holds true for negative reviews as the “short memory of the reader comes to expect savagery and fulmination. Forgotten are all the palliating equivocations, all the positive comments, all the rave reviews. Only the violence retains the color of passion in a reader’s memory.” What inspired me was his statement that simple reviews “serve no worthwhile purpose,” and that an in-depth essay, “illuminates the special treasures a specific film proffers.”

As he pointed out in a two-part interview with Starlog magazine back in 1985, most periodicals, that covered genre fare at the time, had little to no critical faculties:

“I am always suspicious of whores. Starlog, Fantastic Films, almost all the magazines with the exception of Cinefantastique are flacks for the industry. They live off the free hand-outs and they can’t really say bad things. How honest can a magazine like that be? How penetrating can it be? So, you do articles on special effects and visits to movie sets. You’ve brought up an audience of kids who cannot tell good from bad.”

In the same interview, he infamously called Back to the Future (1985), “a piece of shit,” which did not endear him to Starlog’s readership. He called it “a rip-off, a steal from Bob Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love to begin with. It is absolutely mindless, empty-headed, manipulative and it’s a sitcom.” Ellison was unafraid to skewer sacred cows like Star Wars (in an entertaining takedown entitled, “Luke Skywalker Is A Nerd and Darth Vader Sucks Runny Eggs”) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), calling the latter, “a seriously flawed film. It fails the first order or storytelling: to tell a story.” And yet, he tempers this by saying, “the psychedelic segments are visually some of the most exciting stuff ever put on celluloid; in a way it’s what cinema is all about, really.”

Sometimes, Ellison used his insider status within the industry to shed light on why a film was the way it was, like with Dune (1984). He briefly takes us through the failed attempts by the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott, and then explains why David Lynch’s version was doomed to fail through studio interference. Ellison was of the opinion that Lynch's film was set up to fail even before it was released in theaters. In October of 1984, he was approached by USA Today to write a visiting critic's review of Dune. The film was due to be released on December 14th, 1984. Ellison figured that he had plenty of time to do a review of the film seeing as how he was on amicable terms with both Universal Studios (who was distributing the film) and Frank Herbert. And then something happened within Universal Studios:

"It was widely rumored in the gossip underground that Frank Price, Chairman of MCA/Universal's Motion Picture Group, and one of the most powerful men in the industry, had screened the film in one or another of its final workups, and had declared – vehemently enough and publicly enough for the words quickly to have seeped under the door of the viewing room and formed a miasma over the entire Universal lot – 'This film is a dog. It's gonna drop dead. We're going to take a bath on it. Nobody'll understand it!' (Now those aren't the exact words, because I wasn't there. But the sense is dead accurate. Half a dozen separate verifications from within the MCA organization.)."

Paranoia swept through Universal and screenings were canceled or rescheduled with rumors fueling the fire. Ellison mentions a meeting between the film's producer, Dino De Laurentiis, and the owner of a big chain of multiplex theaters that did not go well. This repeated itself at another screening in New York City. As a result, Universal got very nervous and said that there would be no screenings of any kind for anyone until the release date of December 14th. Ellison goes on to recount a screening for the film that he tried to attend on the November 30th but was not allowed entry after speaking to Frank Wright, National Publicity Director for MCA at the time. Even after telling Wright that he was not going to pan the film and getting USA Today's West Coast entertainment editor, Jack Matthews, to talk to Wright, Ellison was still denied access to the screening. Ellison recalls, "But if that was what happened to a reviewer from something as important to Universal as USA Today, do you begin to understand how, before the film ever opened, the critical film community was made to feel nervous, negative and nasty about Dune?" Two days before Dune opened in wide release, Ellison saw the film and ironically gave the motion picture one of its few positive reviews.



Throughout his tenure as a film critic, Ellison championed the underdog, going to bat for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) when Universal Studios did its best to marginalize the film by cutting their own version with a happy ending, which, as you can imagine, didn’t sit well with Ellison: “Sid Sheinberg has always wanted to be a creator. The frustration of his life is that he is merely one of the canniest and most creative businessmen in the world. So he wants to make Brazil better in the time-honored tradition of businessmen who run the film industry. He wants to piss in it.” Ellison went on to call Brazil, “heart-stopping. It is brilliant beyond the meaning of the word.”

Much to my delight, he championed favorites of mine, like Big Trouble in Little China (1986), describing it as “a film that combines Indiana Jones-swashbuckle, Oriental goofery, special effects magic, contemporary hoodlum-kitsch, pell-mell action to the exclusion of logic but who gives a damn, good old down home Yankee racism, parody, satire, the art of the jongleur, and some of the funniest lines spoken by any actor this year to produce a cheerfully blathering live-action cartoon that will give you release from the real pressures of your basically dreary lives.”

However, much to my dismay, he missed the boat on some of my favorite films, like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984), which he called, “An unintelligible farrago of inaudible sound mix, bad whitefolks, MTV video acting, blatant but hotly denied ripoff of the Doc Savage crew and oeuvre spiced with swipes from Mike Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories, a plot that probably makes sense only in Minkowski Space, six funny lines, four clever sight gags, and billions of dollars’ worth of promotional hype such as Big Brother-style rallies at sf conventions.” Ouch. However, I’m willing to forgive him for such transgressions, because even his takedowns are entertaining.

In his opening dedication, Ellison says that “one simply must have heroes & icons, mustn’t one.” He is one of my heroes whose quality of writing I aspire to but know, deep down, I’ll never achieve. That’s what makes him so unique – that brilliant mix of intensely personal opinion and vast knowledge of how films work and don’t work. However, it doesn’t stop me from trying. I appreciate the brutal honesty in his writing and his willingness to go deliciously over-the-top to make his point. He just doesn’t like a film, he loves it, and on the flip side, he just doesn’t dislike a film, he hates it. Most of all, his willingness to go into detail about why a film worked or didn’t is what inspired me the most and is why I prefer to go into the backstories of how a film came together (or didn’t) because sometimes that story is just as interesting as the finished product. Sometimes it provides insight into what we see on the big screen. Most of all, Ellison’s writing reminds me that the best criticism comes out of a passion for movies – the sheer love of watching something for the first time or revisiting an old favorite again.


SOURCES

Ellison, Harlan. Harlan Ellison’s Watching. Underwood-Miller. Novato, California: 1989.

Goldberg, Lee. “Harlan Ellison – Next Stop: The Twilight Zone.” Starlog. November 1985.

Goldberg, Lee. “Harlan Ellison – ‘Call me a Science Fiction Writer-I’ll Tear Out Your Liver!’” Starlog. December 1985.

12 comments:

  1. Have not read your piece yet, but I already fully agree: his essays were the first I stumbled on as a college student that made me go, What? You can write like this about movies? He was the exact opposite of the movie reviews I read in my local paper and (even) the reviews I'd see on shows like At the Movies. Just alive with words and ideas and attitude and personality and incredibly intimidating intelligence... And nobody ever says his name along with the other greats. Kudos for STARTING your series with him!

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  2. Harlan Ellison is one of the great writers, period. Loved his fiction and his criticisms of whatever. The man has a unique voice in whatever writes. Great look at the man and his work, J.D.

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  3. A very loving, thorough tribute to an uncompromising reviewer and sci-fi legend (and I'd never heard his opinions on DUNE or BUCKAROO BANZAI)– I look forward to the rest of these, J.D.!

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  4. I learned quite a bit about Ellison here J.D., and I must say I found your essay wholly fascinating. My own connection to Ellison is that he is the one who wrote the original OUTER LIMITS' greatest episode, DEMON WITH A GLASS HAND. But as you note with authority and engagement he was a jack of all trades in the writing field and more than a suitable subject for your first post in this promising series.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demon_with_a_glass_hand

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  5. Ellison's takedown of Buckaroo Banzai was personal.
    Needless to say the film did not have a billion dollar campaign, quite the opposite. Instead the studio decided to do small grass-root promotions at sci-fi conventions. Part of this involved getting sci-fi fans to chant "Where are we going? Planet 10 When are we going? Real Soon!" repeatedly. Ellison was doing a reading in the next room and got drowned out, deeply irritating him. He personally told the Banzai fans to quieten down. These are the Big Brother rallies he refers to. Also Ellison was/is deeply concerned with Hollywood plagiarism (see Lawsuits) and Buckaroo is definitely an unofficial homage to Doc Savage, albeit one that couldn't declare itself at the time (again lawsuits)

    I genuinely believe that for these two events Ellison would've loved the film. They occupy similar real estate in my head. Maverick gonzo science fiction that goes so fast it makes your head spin. He also turns up his nose at Evil Dead 2. However he is the only person besides me who thinks Iceman is a great underrated science fiction film. And his ode to Ken Russell is a thing of beauty

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  6. Robert May:

    Thanks! Yeah, he was probably the first film critic that really spoke to me along with J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum. What I dug about Ellison is that he reviewed SF and fantasy films, which I loved!


    le0pard13:

    Thank you for the kind words, my friend!


    Sean Gill:

    Thanks, Sean! Uncompromising is right, but it was so badly needed back then when within SF and fantasy fandom you'd hardly find a critical word with the notable exception of CINEFANTASTIQUE.


    Sam Juliano:

    Thanks for stopping by, Sam! Good call on THE OUTER LIMITS. He also wrote a script for that show that James Cameron ripped off for THE TERMINATOR, which turned into a famous legal confrontation between the two men. Ellison is a fascinating guy.


    James S:

    Thanks for shedding light on Ellison's beef with BUCKAROO BANZAI. I did not know that and it sure explains why he had such an axe to grind with that film. He is certainly dead-on with the comparison to DOC SAVAGE.

    I do remember him praising ICEMAN, a film I have not seen in years and years.

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  7. A.J. MacReady here, back from the abyss.

    J.D. my friend. . .you nailed it. This was worth getting internet access back in and of itself. I return from the wilderness to find THIS? About Harlan? I don't deserve it.

    I'm almost positive we've discussed our mutual love of HEW before. If not: we both love it. Regarding Harlan, I can only paraphrase Lionel Hutz: "I don't use the word 'hero' often. But (Harlan), you are the greatest hero in American history."

    Might be overstating it a bit, but not by much.

    Stoked to be back and reading RH again!

    PS. I love Harlan, but one of MY heroes is William Goldman. Reading many things you wrote, realizing I might try to describe Goldman much the same way, was really nice. Even if you did a better job of it. Seeing your affection for Harlan come through so clearly, it is something to be admired.

    PPS. Patton Oswalt lives the dream (we know this, tyou say, but really). You begin as a fan, Harlan is an idol, etc. . .and somehow end up in a place where not only can you call him a friend, HE calls YOU a friend. And then a different friend, another writer, decides to call the main character of his movie Ellison Oswalt (Sinister, which I quite liked). How cool is that? I mean, it's not as if "J.D. Harlan" doesn't have a nice ring to it. . . .

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  8. Hey man! Long time no see. Thank you for the kind words.

    Yeah, we have probably talked about Ellison's greatness, I'm sure.

    I dig much of Goldman's work but reading one of his books he came across as a very bitter guy... I guess that come from getting screwed over by Hollywood so many times.

    Dig Patton Oswalt also. His STAR WARS fillibuster that he did for PARKS & RECREATION is the stuff of legend.

    Great to hear from ya!

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  9. Your article is wonderful, and I'm off to find a copy of Watching right now. I seem to be more involved in the sf/f internet culture than the film culture and the twain rarely meet, with the exception of a few fleeting mentions of Ellison's film reviews. I've never even read a full review, only snippets, though I was tempted to quote his famous "the frisson of joyful discovery" during a 'net-wide spoiler discussion a few weeks back.

    "Six funny lines." DYING.

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  10. Stacia:

    Thank you! I think you will really dig WATCHING. It's a fantastic book, esp. if you're a fan of SF and fantasy. He certainly doesn't hold back in his reviews, which was very refreshing back in the day, but it is skill as a writer and his knowledge that makes them hold up as much now as they did back then.

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  11. This is a great tribute. I read Watching and it was a great influence.

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