Harlan Ellison's Watching, p.1Harlan Ellison
Harlan Ellison's Watching
Table of Contents
HARLAN ELLISON'S WATCHING
Essays on film by Harlan Ellison®
Copyright © 1989, 2007 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation.
HARLAN ELLISON'S WATCHING is an Edgeworks Abbey® Offering in association with ereads.com. Published by arrangement with the Author and The Kilimanjaro Corporation.
Harlan Ellison and Edgeworks Abbey are registered trademarks of The Kilimanjaro Corporation.
This edition is copyright © 2008 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation. All rights reserved.
Front Cover Illustration by Leo & Diane Dillon. Copyright © 1966 by Leo & Diane Dillon. Renewed, © 1994 by Leo & Diane Dillon.
First e-reads publication: 2009 www.ereads.com
Harlan Ellison website: www.harlanellison.com
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic or mechanical— including photocopy, recording, Internet posting, electronic bulletin board—or any other information storage and retrieval system, or by any other method, means or process of embodying and/or transmitting information, text or the spoken word now known or hereafter devised without permission in writing from The Kilimanjaro Corporation, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a critical article or review to be printed in a magazine or newspaper, or electronically transmitted on radio, television or in a recognized on-line journal. For information address Author's agent: Richard Curtis Associates, Inc., 171 East 74th Street, New York, New York 10021, USA.
Preface by Leonard Maltin, copyright 0 2007 by Leonard Maltin.
Foreword by George Kirgo, copyright © 1989 by The Estate of George Kirgo.
Introduction: "Crying 'Water!' In A Crowded Theater," copyright © 1989 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation.
"Darkness in Magic Caverns," copyright ©1973 by Harlan Ellison. Renewed, 2001 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation.
Reviews from Cinema, copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967 and 1968 by Harlan Ellison. Renewed, 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation.
Reviews from the L.A. Free Press, copyright © 1969 and 1970 by Harlan Ellison. Renewed, 1997 and 1998 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation.
"Harlan Ellison's Handy Guide to 2001: A Space Odyssey," copyright © 1969 by Harlan Ellison. Renewed, 1997 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation.
Review of Silent Running, copyright © 1972 by Harlan Ellison. Renewed, 2000 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation.
"Harlan Ellison: Screening Room," copyright © 1973 by Harlan Ellison. Renewed, 2001 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation.
"Harlan Ellison's Watching" [First Series], copyright © 1977 and 1978 by Harlan Ellison. Renewed, 2005 and 2006 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation.
"Star Trek-The Motionless Picture," copyright 1980 by The Kilimanjaro
"Harlan Ellison's Watching" [Second Series], copyright © 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1989 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation.
"Nightmare Nights at the Daisy," copyright © 1966 by Harlan Ellison. Renewed, 1994 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation.
So many years. Memory has mislaid the moments of help and wisdom in which those who ought to be thanked here contributed to the doing of the work. A studio publicist who went out of her way to sneak me into a screening intended only for exhibitors. A scenarist who supplied me with privileged background information on why a film went wrong. A copyeditor who caught a serious error and stalled the magazine till I could write revised pages and get them airfreighted overnight to beat the deadline. The friends who understood why I had to cancel out of dinner at the last minute so I could catch a screening and write the review before morning. The editors who caught the flak when I savaged one of the studios that advertised in the magazine. My staff, who put up with the unshaven maniac in a bathrobe who waits for their arrival five days a week. So many of them through so many years. The moments are gone, and only the work remains. I hope they know who they are, and that somewhichway they see this note. They deserve more, but all I've got at the moment is thank you.
And even among that special group, there are some who have been of special importance in the preparation of this book. Edward and Audrey Ferman of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Curtis Lee Hanson, now a successful film director, who was my editor at Cinema. Art Kunkin of the Freep. And Brian Kirby, who stood in the editorial wind at a couple of newspapers whose names only a few of us remember. Bill Warren. Tim and Chuck. Norman Goldfind. The writers and staff of the Writers Guild of America, west . . . who make it supportable to work in an industry systemically incapable of respecting the written word or those who slave to produce it. Kathy and Sarah and Sharon, and Michael & Nikki. Gil Lamont, who does more than I can thank him for. And my wife, Susan, the beloved Electric Baby. Did I remember to say thank you?
With friendship, for
BETTE FAST and HOWARD FAST
because one simply must have
heroes & icons, mustn't one
"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity."
ON SUNDAY 23 JULY 2006, in the Los Angeles Times, the iconic long-time film critic of venerable Time magazine, Mr. Richard Schickel, wrote a book review that began thus . . .
Oh, boyoboy, said I. And I called Richard, with whom I had shared space on a number of occasions. On Monday 24 July 2006; and I cozzened him into giving me permission to use the foregoing—Oh, boyoboy did he get it right—and as you lumber on through these pages, every now and then come back here and let it refresh itself. Damn skippy!
3 Nov 2007
by Leonard Maltin
As the late, great Jimmy Durante used to say in mock disgust during his rambunctious act, "Everyone's a critic!"
Where films are concerned, the immortal Schnozzola was right: movies are a democratic art form, and every person who watches a picture, from the President of the United States to the guy who hauls away your garbage, has an opinion about them. As someone who makes his living voicing his feelings on the subject, I know that people cling vigorously to their opinions. They're all too willing to share them and they aren't receptive to anyone who tries to change their minds. I long ago stopped trying, though when I teach I try to get my students to expand their opinions beyond the summarizing statements "I loved it" or "It sucked."
Often I'm asked how I go about reviewing a film. The questioner assumes that I have a strict procedure, but in truth I don't. I try to be, as much as possible, a member of the audience. How I feel as I walk out of the theater or screening room determines the tone of my review, and over many years' time I've learned to trust my gut feelings.
Harlan Ellison apparently works the same way, but he has a great advantage over me, having spent much of his life accessing his stream of consciousness and channeling it through his fingers to a typewriter. (Yes, a typewriter . . . not a computer.) This enables us to know exactly how he felt while watching a film; there is immediacy and an almost tactile connection to the experience as he describes it.
Like any artist, he makes this seem perfectly natural, almost easy. I can assure you that it is not. I spent many years trying to find my critical "voice." Years ago, one of my bosses prodded and hectored me to give him exactly what Ellison does: a raw, unvarnished opinion, without that reserve that many reviewers cultivate. Another question that often comes up is what requirements are necessary to become a film critic.
Years ago, the feisty dramatist-turned-critic Harold Clurman answered this query by stating simply, "To be a critic you must have . . . a job." In
This has always upset me. Do you think an editor or television news producer would assign someone inexperienced to cover sports? ("Hey, I've watched baseball my whole life—I can write about that!") Not bloody likely. Yet in years past, publications as august as The New York Times and The New Yorker have pulled people off their regular beat—or out of the blue—to work as reviewers. Fortunately, they haven't lasted long.
Ellison himself has the last word on this topic, from a 1977 column (reprinted on page 118 of this collection): "You must understand: any schmuck who goes to a movie and whose ego gets in the way of good sense, who runs one of those 'cinematic insight' type raps—as shown in example in Woody Allen's new one, Annie Hall—and then has the good fortune to con some editor into accepting such drivel, can be a film critic or reviewer. They do it not out of any deep and abiding love for motion pictures, or even because of an understanding of what it takes to create a film . . . they do it because they can get free screening passes to the studio press showings. They are scavengers. Cinematic illiterates who pontificate without a scintilla of talent for moviemaking of their own. I put them in the same social phylum with kiddie-porn producers, horse-dopers, and assholes who use the phrase 'sci-fi.'"
[Sidebar: note the word "rap." One of the pleasures of delving into this collection is that the essays mirror the times in which they were written. It's amazing how much our world has changed over the last forty years, especially in terms of slang and pop culture.]
As far as I'm concerned, a good film critic should have two qualities in equal measure: love and knowledge of movies. If he or she is deficient in either area it isn't going to work.
In the opening chapters of this book, Harlan Ellison establishes his bona fides, and traces his passion for movies to his childhood. There may be some individuals who discovered the medium later in life, but most people I know who are movie crazy have been so since they were kids. What's more, the films they saw in their youth, the places they saw them, and the actors who cast a spell over them at that impressionable time of their lives stay with them forever.
(This doesn't mean that the details are always accurate, as Harlan indicates in an extensive footnote about the facts contradicting his memory of when he saw the Max and Dave Fleischer cartoon feature Mr. Bug Goes to Town. But rose-colored memories of boyhood moviegoing are what matter in this context, not the mundane specifics.)
Saying that Ellison is passionate is like calling Cameron Diaz sexy. If he likes a movie, or an individual, he calls forth a string of the most astonishing superlatives. If he is put off—or to be more accurate, pissed off—then the unfortunate subject is in for a chain of invective that would send the strongest man reeling and the rest of us reaching for our Webster's Unabridged.
As for knowledge, I can't think of anyone else offhand who, in the course of reviewing The Witches of Eastwick, would not only discuss novelist John Updike, in the context of noted authors whose works have been adapted for the screen, but also make a point of mentioning René Clair's 1942 comedy I Married a Witch, citing not only its stars, Fredric March and Veronica Lake, but costars Cecil Kellaway and Robert Benchley, and of course screenwriters Robert Pirosh and Marc Connelly. He isn't showing off; he's calling upon his encyclopedic knowledge of literature and movies. Why shouldn't such knowledge be put to good use?
Given all of this, calling Harlan a "film critic" seems too limiting. I prefer to think of him as an essayist, one of a special breed worth cherishing at a time when good writing is scarce, and fewer people are reading newspapers and magazines than ever before.
Not bound by the conventions of reviewing, he expresses his feelings in ways most critics wouldn't—or couldn't. (He may be able to write that "Ali MacGraw can't act for shit," in a review of The Getaway, but I'd be hesitant to use that particular form of expression.)
Ellison brings something else to his pieces, aside from his dizzying command of the language: he has actually been engaged in the movie and television business. I don't think this is a necessity, any more than a restaurant critic has to have the ability to cook a sumptuous meal, but there's no denying that Ellison's experiences in The Business color his writing. He has no compunction about dropping names, but then they're names of people he's actually known, worked alongside, insulted, been insulted by, or dealt with in some manner.
These references and anecdotes would be considered inappropriate in an ordinary review, but they're part of that unique Ellison stream-of-consciousness I referred to earlier. If you're curious to know what Harlan thinks about a movie or a movie trend, you're going to get more than you may have bargained for. . . but in for a penny, in for a pound. He's going to take you on a ride, and that means he isn't putting his thoughts about a film into capsule form.
One final question people always ask folks like me: "Do you read other critics' work?" Yes, I do, but not to find out what the writer thought about a film. I've already made up my mind, so if I decide to read a review it's not to discern the critic's opinion, but rather to see what I can learn . . . or simply to enjoy a well-written article.
I don't know how valuable it is to learn Harlan Ellison's opinion of this film or that, but I do know that reading an Ellison essay is going to be provocative, infuriating, hilarious, or often a combination of the above. It is never time wasted.
Certainly he is dogmatic. What's more, he doesn't care if you agree with him or not . . . because of his absolute certainty that he's right.
Normally, I wouldn't read a review by someone so hidebound in his opinions, but Ellison approaches the subject of movies with such fervor—and a deep well of knowledge—that one has to give him his due even if one has the temerity to disagree with his conclusions.
In my lexicon, the ultimate sin in moviemaking is being dull. For this occasion I will expand that definition to include writing about movies. Let me assure you, Harlan Ellison is never dull.
by George Kirgo
It takes but the reading of a single review in this collection to be aware that this is not your normal critic at work—nor, for that matter, your normal person.
Listen to Mr. Ellison as he writes of seeing Joe: "At the end of the film, it took my director friend, Max Katz, and his lady, Karen, to help me up the aisle. I could not focus. I was trembling like a man with malaria. There was a large potted tree on the sidewalk outside the theater. I managed to get to it, and sat there, unable to communicate, for twenty minutes. I was no good for two days thereafter."
But did he like the movie?
What sets Harlan Ellison apart from nearly all other reviewers is that he unblushingly exposes his psyche and personal prejudices with every film he views. He watches viscerally, reacts viscerally, writes viscerally. If you have the stomach for it, you will be rewarded. This book is, of course, just one man's opinion. But the man has a uniquely individual voice, a voice that never minces its words.
"Spaceballs," he writes, "rivals L'Avventura as the single most obstinately boring film of all time. An invincibly tasteless farrago of lame jokes, obvious parodies, telegraphed punchlines, wretched acting, and idiot plot."
He didn't like the movie.
Having made enemies, he cements the enmity in print. Steven Spielberg and Gene Roddenberry are thrashed, and trashed, by Ellison's lash. More than occasionally, he is guilty of overkill; for example, the venom wasted on Gremlins. But, again, this is Ellison's Way. Passion governs his every thought and word. He's been like that at least sin
"Oh, God, the movies," he writes. "For four hours every Saturday afternoon," the movies transported him "away from that miserable lonely charnel house of childhood." The picture show continues to provide joy to Ellison the adult. " . . . the basic tenets of the Ellison Moviegoing Philosophy: (the movie) kept me rapt and happy all the while it danced before me. What the hell more can one ask from a mere shadow-play?"
And the keynote of the Ellison Movie Reviewing Philosophy: "I will, first and always, try to entertain."
He meets his own high standards. Never does he fail to beguile us. To pique us—even when one finds one's self in disagreement with his judgments.
It never occurred to me that Mickey One was "the finest American film of the year, and possibly of many years!" Is the "compelling" Lolly-Madonna XXX the same one I saw and found to be the opposite of compelling? Brazil " . . . one of the greatest motion pictures ever made . . . in the top ten . . . "? (Is criticizing the critic permitted? I've never been a Foreword person before.)
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