AN EMPIRE OF ONE

If you don't think everything's really weird, you're not paying attention.

Harlan Ellison at Cinefamily

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The other night the family and I strolled down to Cinefamily to see Harlan Ellison. Despite being a fan since seeing the “Demon with a Glass Hand” episode of The Outer Limits as a kid, and living in Los Angeles since before the SF bookstore Dangerous Visions (named after one of Ellison’s books) closed shop, the nearest I had gotten to seeing Ellison in person was to have picked up a signed copy of Mefisto in Onyx at The Mysterious Bookshop many years ago, just missing Ellison due to work commitments.

The video excerpt below captures Ellison near the end of the evening  by which time Tuesday night had morphed into Wednesday morning. I’ve been to a decent number of author and artist events, but  truly cannot recall someone who was as enthusiastic as Ellison was throughout the entire evening, being especially true at the end when meeting his fans. When watching the video, keep in mind that Ellison is 77 and that after the event Ellison still did not call it a night, but headed over to Pink’s for hotdogs with some other enthusiasts. If everyone in the world exhibited this level of enthusiasm, we would no longer be asking, “Whatever became of the world of tomorrow?” because the world of tomorrow would be the world today. The energy on display belies the rumors of his imminent demise. Let us hope that he will live with as much enthusiasm for many more years.

Note: please link to this page for the video rather than the Youtube page. The link is also on the Youtube page because it’s my Youtube channel.

The typo in Mefisto in Onyx that Ellison corrects near the end of the above video. It should read, "Dean R. Koontz."

When we went to the event, we had no expectations of a signing, so it was a pleasant surprise to find ourselves in line waiting to meet Ellison face to face. Ellison was candid about the reason for doing it: he needs dough. (You can order books from him here.)

At least one member of the audience appears to have converted the experience into a paycheck. You can read his account of the entire evening here. (You can read another, more sympathetic account of the event here.) I say “entire” because the writer appears to have been present for the exchange between our son, Tristan, and Ellison, which came near the very end of the evening. And I say “his account” because he screws it up in such a way that his reporting can be used to illustrate how unreliable reporting can be. Thanks to this reporter, the evening turned into a lesson for our son on how the media can screw things up.

Here’s how the reporter describes it:

One awkward young fan could barely speak in his presence. Ellison, without missing a beat, “Do they screw with you at school?” The answer was obvious. “Let me show you something…come here…” And Ellison taught the youngster a painful retaliatory handshake for his tormentors. Again, Ellison knows what it is to be fucked with so well, he can read it on a sympathetic soul — even if he plays a batshit lunatic in public. And occasionally casually wields a knife.

Here’s our version. Our son had been complaining that he was tired and had to get up early for school. It’s true. Our fourteen year old’s energy was flagging whereas Ellison, the 77 year old, seemed to be just getting warmed up. Our son is not unfamiliar with Ellison’s TV work, but as for being a fan of Ellison’s writing, no one should be surprised that he’s perfectly in sync with his generation in finding many other activities more exciting than reading. In short, he wanted to leave and didn’t care about getting the book signed. We are the villains of the piece because we put him in situations such as this hoping that they will have a positive affect on him.

This night, Tristan’s complaints had no power over his evil parents, and eventually he was face-to-face with Ellison. When Ellison saw Tristan’s Thundercats T-Shirt, he took the opportunity to display the Blackhawk emblem on the back of his jacket. This led to an exchange with some of the other fans about Blackhawk comics and after signing Tristan’s book, Ellison said, “Good luck with your cats.” This got some laughs. While thinking that we had gotten through the signing without anything unexpected happening, we thanked Ellison and started walking away.

Of course, these thoughts were premature for when we were already more than half way down the aisle to the exit, Ellison yelled out to Tristan, “Hey, kid! What’s your name?”

“Tristan.”

“Do the kids at school fuck with you?”

Tristan says he said no, but we heard him say, “Sometimes.”

Ellison said, “Do you want to learn some moves on how to take care of that?,” and asked Tristan to come back.

“Shake my hand.”

Tristan grabbed his hand.

“Tighter.”

Tristan squeezed tighter.

“Tighter.”

For the record: the true color of Ellison's tie was red

With a “helluva grip,” according to Tristan, Ellison showed him how to pin an opponent’s thumb down, thus rendering him helpless. It was like the handshake version of Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch. Is there any kid on this planet, “fucked with” (as the LA Weekly reporter put it) or not, who would not be impressed by that? You might say that the answer is “painfully obvious.”

Ellison then said that if Tristan came to his house, “after 2, I’ll show you some more moves.”

As we walked away, this time for good, Ellison offered Tristan one last bit of advice: “Get rid of the shorts.”

It was a night that none of us, especially Tristan, will forget.

Additional thoughts

There’s a lot more that can be said regarding the question of whether the LA Weekly writer captured the truth of the event or whether the love he obviously has of his own words won out over the mission to tell the truth, to the extent that some of his descriptions make me feel I was on another planet Tuesday night than the one occupied by the writer. But what’s the point? However, I must register my objection to the image of Ellison’s fans that the writer paints in this passage:

Against the type of his prickly public persona, Ellison is fiercely protective of his fans. Guys in sweatpants, appliqué man-vests, and all manner of unhip, uncool, and unwashed ubernerds waited post-show to glean some autographs and wisdom from him, while he in turn, took careful, personal time with each and every one of them.

Here’s a moment from the scene described above. Would you let this LA Weekly guy write captions for your photos?

One of Ellison’s fans asked him, “So what does it all mean? What is the meaning of life?” Of course, Ellison doesn’t know the answer to that anymore than anyone else. However, given that most of us spend most of our time trying to avoid such questions, it’s a tribute to Ellison that such a question, although perhaps not an uncommon one asked by fans of people that they admire, did not seem out of place this evening.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHT

This one falls in the perennial question, “Where do you get your ideas?” department.

One of the clips shown featured Buster Keaton as a guest star on an episode of Burke’s Law, the 1964 episode, “Who Killed 1/2 of Glory Lee?” Ellison was still excited by the simple fact that he got to write a routine for Buster Keaton. The routine had Keaton acting out in pantomime, in the manner of a game of charades, the answer to Gene Barry’s questions, on the pretext that Keaton’s character had laryngitis. However, the routine seemed more appropriate to Harpo Marx than the characters that Keaton was famous for playing. There’s also a very similar scene played by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the Frank Tashlin directed Artists and Models. Was Ellison inspired by something like this? Who would dare ask Ellison?

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Written by David Kilmer

November 17, 2011 at 12:51 pm

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