Harlan Ellison's Watching, by Harlan Ellison, Los Angeles: Underwood-Miller, 514 pages, $29.95
Harlan Ellison isn't your typical movie critic, screenwriter George Kirgo warns us in the foreword to Harlan Ellison's Watching. And this, I might add, isn't your typical collection of reviews. Although the reviews in Harlan Ellison's Watching span a 25-year period, they are consistently provocative and unique. Consider this from Ellison's review of 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."
Or maybe this from his review of the Tom Selleck film Runaway: "At the end of the film…Selleck and [Cynthia] Rhodes have fallen in love. Both are cops, and both have performed athletically and competently throughout the story. But as they kiss, Selleck says to her, 'Do you cook?' She answers, 'Try me.' Apart from the grating cliché of 'try me '…and the recidivist resonance of times past…the film prominently includes Lois, a cook/babysitter in Selleck's home. So Ms. Rhodes should have replied with a line something like, 'I don't have to; Lois can do it. I can fuck; Lois can't do that.'"
Ellison is best known as a short story writer, one of the most important of the "New Wave" of authors who revolutionized science fiction back in the 1960s. But for over 25 years he has lived in Los Angeles and worked, from time to time, as a writer in the television and movie industry, winning the Writers' Guild award for best teleplay more often than any other person. Thus, he has considerable knowledge of the inner workings of Hollywood, which is fortunate, because his first rule of criticism is that the critic know something about the art he critiques. ("In my ugly, Elitist opinion we are not all entitled to pass on our opinions; we are entitled to pass along our informed opinions.") His second rule is that the critic must love the medium he reviews, and Ellison's love of film is evident in every review in this collection.
As in his fiction, Ellison writes with a self-consciously hip style, filled with anger, sadness, humor, and often-painful autobiography. Above all, he brings passion to his work. And as in his earlier collections of television criticism, The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat, the reviews in this book often digress into lengthy commentary on Ellison's sex life, the movie industry, literature, the American educational system, modem youth, and politics.
Leaving aside the subject of his sex life, Ellison is least interesting when he discusses politics. Here he clearly violates his prohibition against uninformed opinion. Take, for example, this defense of "common sense" from the introduction: "Guns are bad things and ought to be eliminated entirely. Rock cocaine will fuck you up and to hell with how seriously we interfere with the economy of Latin American countries whose ability to repay American bank loans is dependent on the drug crop. Abortion is a matter of individual conscience and piss on those who deflect the arguments with ancient and creaking religious obsession."
Not too long ago, Ellison squared off in the pages of Playboy against David Horowitz and Peter Collier, debating the legacy of the 1960s. Ellison, of course, has had no second thoughts about the '60s. Indeed, given his shallow, almost ritualistic defense of the liberal agenda, it isn't clear that he actually had first thoughts.
Ellison is on much more solid ground when he discusses things he knows. For instance, the film industry itself. Ellison's reviews are full of "inside Hollywood" anecdotes. His story about the bigshot television producer who tried to sell one of the networks on an all-white version of The Wiz is a scream. And if you ever wondered who those people in the rec room scene in Star Trek—The Motion Picture were, and who they had to know to get there, Ellison's the man you want to read. But it isn't all juicy gossip; Ellison even does a little muckraking, exposing some of Hollywood's little white lies. For example, no matter what studio publicists say, The Emerald Forest is not a true story and Ladyhawke is not a medieval legend; both are products of a screenwriter's imagination.
And of course, there are the reviews themselves. Too many critics merely tell us their emotional reaction to a movie. Their "reviews" amount to nothing more than "Yeaa, good flick!" or "Boo, bad movie." Ellison gives us well-reasoned arguments supporting his views. You always get the feeling that Ellison is an intelligent, well-informed lover of film. And that is fortunate, because his taste in films is decidedly offbeat. While I agree with him that 2001: A Space Odyssey is vastly overrated and Star Wars a bore, I find it difficult to believe that he thought Lolly-Madonna XXX (a feudin' hillbillies flick) was "compelling." And no matter what Ellison says, John Carpenter's remake of The Thing is much better than the original.
But this brings up an interesting point. There is, particularly in the later reviews, a strong streak of nostalgia in Ellison's criticism. Nothing seems to be as good as it was when he was a child. The theaters are smaller; the popcorn less fresh; the movies less magical. Remakes never hold a candle to the originals.
And it is particularly strange to see Ellison, onetime defender of the counterculture, railing against today's youth ("tv zombies brainwashed by thunderbolt commercials saturating primetime, MTV drones who can't get enough Madonna or Prince on the small screen, knife-kill flick devotees") for making hits of ghoulish slasher films such as Friday, the 13th, dumb sex comedies such as Bachelor Party, and remakes of classic films such as The Big Clock (No Way Out) and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (The Money Pit).
Indeed, when he argues, quite persuasively, that film audiences have become less literate in the language of cinema and have lost touch with their cultural heritage, Ellison sounds remarkably like Allan Bloom or William Bennett. Could it be that science fiction's angry young man has become film criticism's crotchety middle-aged curmudgeon?
Charles Oliver is assistant editor of REASON.