Harlan Ellison's Watching
by Harlan Ellison

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Underwood-Miller: Los Angeles, 1989
514 pages

May 2006

The act of creation in cinema; or its lack

Harlan Ellison is a thoughtfully opinionated critic, and an emotionally powerful storyteller. These are roughly separate endeavors, so liking or disliking his fiction is not a sure indicator of whether you'll appreciate his critiques of books, films, or television. Harlan Ellison's Watching is a book of movie criticism: some early movie-going nostalgia, some reviews from the 1960s and 1970s, but about two-thirds were originally in his column in Fantasy and Science Fiction from 1984 through 1989. Most of the films discussed are science fiction or fantasy, but not all.

Is Harlan Ellison's Watching a small-print guide to movies to look for, like Leonard Maltin's? No. Although Ellison makes plenty of recommendations, it's more a guide to movies to avoid. (There's a thorough index.) Or if you've seen these bad ones, what you should understand about why they don't work right on the screen. And what is even more fun, Ellison with his Hollywood screenwriter's inside perspective, tells you how the bad ones got made that way: institutional failings of Hollywood film companies, and artistic failures of directors.

Ellison considers writing as the essential creative principle behind good filmmaking, and details the dire effects of bad and indifferent writing. He is justly harsh about remakes and homages, both types of films often exemplifying not an understanding and honoring of what has gone before, but epigones' failure of originality. In the Ellison indictment, the film companies and the directors, even if thoughtful or lucky enough to secure a well-written script, likely will ensure it is rewritten into murky confusion. Action, faces, special effects — all are more important than an original, well-plotted story which is worth watching. We don't need no stinkin' writing. As for values, man — get real.

Ellison's diversions and side-issues furnish a great deal of the fun, as well as sooner or later providing illumination for his reviews and themes:

I fear another weird digression, by way of explanation, is necessary.

Here, elsewhere, and on many other occasions, I have railed against the indiscriminate acceptance of the loathsome theory of cinematic creation called the "auteur theory," wherein all glory and condemnation falls to the director. The writer is merely a hired hand; merely the one who constructs from nothing the "plan" on which the Noble Director builds the edifice of a movie; the creator who dreams the dream, sets it down so the package can be financed by a studio, the one who merely ...

But listen to Francis Ford Coppola on this subject:

"I like to think of myself as a writer who directs. When people go to see a movie, 80 percent of the effect it has on them was preconceived and precalculated by the writer. He's the one who imagines opening with a shot of a man walking up the stairs and cutting to another man walking down the stairs. A good script has pre-imagined exactly what the movie is going to do on a story level, on an emotional level, on all these various levels. To me, that's the primary act of creation."

Although Ellison was writing for Star Trek at its beginning, he has biting analyses of Star Trek's development as well as of Star Wars. He does praise a fair number of films, maybe not the ones you'd expect; but praise is often in passing as he savages unworthily successful films. Ellison kicks ass and names names. He says why he feels the way he does, and there's a lot to learn from him.

So Harlan Ellison's Watching is erratic as a guide to the good, what there is of it, and reasonably devastating when he turns his critical artillery on the legions of bad. It's an entertaining and educational book even if you haven't yet seen many of the movies, or don't know much about how Hollywood works.

It's lucky we get any good movies at all.


© 2006 Robert Wilfred Franson

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