A prolific author of more than 1,700 published stories, television’s most cerebral writer, a living legend of sci-fi literature: Harlan Ellison has earned the right to a feature-length look at his career. The impression you’re left with from Erik Nelson’s film, however, is that he’s a notoriously cantankerous coot competing for the Crank of the Century award. Blessed with a mouth perpetually stuck in fifth gear, Ellison doesn’t suffer fools gladly or quietly; given that he relegates 99 percent of humanity to that category, there’s no shortage of scenes in which he unleashes eloquent, profane rants on lecture audiences, passersby and the doc’s camera crew. That sharp teeth reference isn’t a Dixie whistle.
If Nelson’s aim was simply to give this bull a stage on which to rage, he’s succeeded; if the director is also trying to advocate the importance of Ellison as a man of letters, he’s wildly off the mark. Brief scenes of the author reading his work offer tastes of Ellison’s biting, brilliant prose, but the reasons his stories have been so influential are left unexplained. We’re told major projects remain unfinished, but not why; pedigreed talking heads assert that he’s a genius without further elaboration. You leave convinced of Ellison’s skills as a raconteur but with little knowledge of why this cult of personality would be lauded for anything else.