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 since April 1964, when wefirst met, on the Paramount lot, both of us writing features. Twenty-five years (at least) at high pitch! I would be exhausted. Harlan isn't. As of April 1989, he remains one of those "who (wear) at their hearts the fire's center."
"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.)
Yet when he and I share a judgment (which I find, to my astonishment and alarm, is almost always), Harlan approaches bull's-eye perspicacity. "2001 is a visually exciting, self-indulgent exercise ... no story ... no plot." And besides that, it's "seriously flawed."
Because of the times, I must get political. When Harlan and I wrote our first movies at Paramount (the titles will remain shameless; Fifth Amendment), the studio was a quiet little village; only a couple of pictures were being made. The lot was a summer playground for two kids, Gregg Hawks and Nick Kirgo, who wandered through dark and empty soundstages while their fathers, Howard and George, labored on a film.
Almost twenty-six years later, Paramount is doing record-making business. But some things, as Harlan points out, remain the same. The writer is still given the shortest shrift available, and since that era of benevolent paternalism, writers have had to strike four times (most recently six long months in 1988) to achieve any semblance of financial or creative progress. As president of the Writers Guild of America, west, I can testify to Harlan's unionist ardor (he's served two terms on the Board of Directors) and his devotion to the cause of his colleagues.
Ellison boldly fights the writer's war. He reminds the reader that every film he reviews began with a blank page (is the truth a cliché?). His essays are celebrations of films and celebrations of screenwriters. When a picture fails, he does not (always) pin the rap on the director, the producer, the actors, the agents, the cinematographers, the studios, the best boy, the gaffer or the gofer. Every film is the writer's responsibility, his blame--and his triumph.