Harlan Ellison’s Watching

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My sincerest – well, okay, heartfelt – well, okay, oblique apologies for not having a review up in several months. I’ve been working on a couple of pieces for the website, working, working out, working indoors, and working up a genuine frenzy over a 1989 book I found called “Harlan Ellison’s Watching”. I know it doesn’t sound appropriate to discuss a book on a movie site, but in all fairness the book I’m talking about is a collection of film reviews, critiques and essays. The reason I’m not putting this one off is I just finished it and it’s fresh in my mind; that and I feel I deserve some recognition for finishing probably the most difficult book I’ve ever read (seriously, I needed a dictionary on hand for four out of every seven pages).

Now, as a fair admission, I’m not exactly a huge science fiction fan, and with roughly half of his pieces coming from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, I feel like I’m slightly out of my element here. I read precious little science fiction (whether it be short story, novel, magazine and novella form), and I find myself coming to grips with the fact that I don’t even like most science fiction movies. I’ve read Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” and I consider it the greatest short story I’ve ever read, but my lack of experience often makes me feel as if, when Ellison is writing, he’s speaking to a congregation that I don’t have a ticket stub for, and that only makes the reading more difficult. Ellison is much more than a science fiction writer; hell, he wrote this nonfiction collection of essays for public consumption, but the work contained therein often seems to come from the perspective of a fantasist, and it took me some getting used to. If you regularly sift through Isaac Asimov novels and still somehow find time to see 70s and 80s movies, this book is perfect for you. I’ve never read anything by Asimov, and as such I’m in this odd position where I loved the book yet find it difficult to recommend to anyone.

However, my lack of experience with science fiction and fantasy actually led me to agree with a fair number of Ellison’s assessments. One of the absolute highlights of the book is when he castigates the first movie (that’s Episode IV: A New Hope, for ye unwashed) for relying more on spectacle than substance and – well, I don’t want to give away the fun bits. Suffice to say, the best parts of the book are the essays where he 1) praises Brazil and Big Trouble in Little China (both sadly overlooked films in the fantasy and science fiction genre, the latter given a proper review on this very site), 2) discusses the lack of wit in the science community (among fans in particular), 3) cultural illiteracy and 4) (my personal favorite) a review of the 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still – written when he was a lad of only 17. It’s an adorable review, mostly because after working your way through nearly 514 pages of the most esoteric wordplay you’ve ever encountered, it’s nice to see writing – very nice writing, mind – that’s somehow several notches below that featured by a pair of twenty-somethings on this website.

That being said, it appears nothing written even tangentially regarding Ellison or his work can be done without mention of his contentious nature. The man is an asshole (maybe it’s because he’s a manlet, who knows), the sort who seems proud of the moniker or at the very least the malice that spits it. He has extremely harsh views and will excoriate you for disagreeing with them. Some of the absolute worst moments of the book are when he criticizes The Thing – which was really vague, seemed like he was mad just because it was a remake (the best remake of all time, you clod!), his out of hand dismissal of the auteur theory, an article he wrote on some stupid club where the Hollywood elite used to hang out (no one cares if it’s still operating outside of 60 year old women buying the celebrity gossip magazines in check-out counters at grocery stores nationwide), and his unbelievable contempt and fury for Gremlins. I’m not like a huge Gremlins fan or anything (hell, isn’t the current reigning opinion even amongst hardcore Gremlins fans that the sequel is better anyway?) but this dude hates Gremlins. I’m pretty sure he hates Gremlins more than I hated (shudder, groan, attempted self-immolation) GrumpyCat’s Worst Christmas Ever. Most of that comes from the violence in the picture – Ellison is a man who constantly writes about violence and threatens violence on others (possibly in a figurative sense, but that’s no excuse), but whoa, hold on bro, can’t let the lil’uns actually SEE the violence – not that Gremlins was that violent anyway. Like yeah, it was pretty fucked up that it got a PG rating, but this wasn’t the corruptor of children he made it out to be. Ellison had a very adverse reaction to violence in films, so I guess that’s the real reason he refused to watch Evil Dead 2.

Look, it all comes down to whether or not you ought to read it, and I’m not entirely sure. Do you have a sense of cultural awareness that stems from a sense of historicity? If you do, please purchase this book; don’t pirate it (he’ll kill you) or check it out from a library (I don’t care how fast you read, the library will be kicking down your door before you’re three quarters of the way through it). One of the things I appreciate about Harlan Ellison is that he’s one of the most brutally honest writers I know, and more important is that he endeavors to keep those who control our lives and information honest. I pride myself on being the most honest person I know, and if that makes me a yutz, so be it, but at least I’ll share a trait with the undeniable genius who wrote this book. I for one know I don’t read anywhere near enough of him, so I’m going to work on that – in addition to the content I’ve already committed myself to working on for this site. This book contains prose that is better than anything you or I will ever write, and it’s probably better than we deserve – but we’d damn well better read because what he said in 1968 applies just as much then as it did today. Just skip the Daisy piece at the end. No one gives a damn about the radio playing Billie Holiday.

Footnote: the book begins in a thoroughly engaging manner by describing Ellison’s love of film. How much do you love movies? I mean beyond enough to visit this site. How about enough to call them films in broad daylight? How about enough to seek out black and white movies, arthouse movies, foreign movies, even – gasp! – silent movies? How about enough to sneak out of your bedroom five times in one night just to see Hoppity Goes to Town? I grew up with this movie, just as Ellison did. I was beguiled by the animation, the heroism, the music, the story, the characters, the sense of wonder and fantasy, and everything else people in the 1940s seemed to value besides overt racism and cruddy music. No matter how much of this writing Ellison may disagree with (let’s face it, he’s not going to read any of this shit, he’s a Luddite no matter whether he wants to admit so), there is some small way that I get you, Harlan. It calls back to Hoppity. Never thought I’d be in a position to write those words.

One more footnote, because Harlan goes off on enough tangents to make a trigonometry professor blush: I actually listen to enough dadrock to realize I love science fiction/fantasy songs, particularly ones imbued with a decent rock beat to them. 2112, ’39, Karn Evil 9; I guess the thing just has to have a number somewhere in there to make me smile. And no, enjoying science fiction/fantasy video games doesn’t count. Hell, seems like 80% of all video games are science fiction/fantasy.

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