Sunday, December 20, 2009

Academy of the Underrated: The Wizard of Speed and Time

Wizard poster and link to Mike Jittlov's Wizworld
This is a film that gets into the Academy by virtue of sheer obscurity. It’s possible that critics and audiences would have embraced this film had it been given more than a cursory release, but instead it’s remained underground due to distribution woes, not too hard to locate on VHS in the day but unreleased on DVD. (I’ve got a bootleg made off Blockbuster’s rental copy, but it’s seen better days.) Mike Jittlov’s unique autobiopic/special effects extravaganza really deserves a wider audience. It’s a legitimately weird and heartfelt picture, and for all its indulgent and amateurish qualities (which include a truckload of really dumb jokes), it’s the finest salute to geeky creativity I can name. It’s basically our ROCKY.

Set in Hollywood, 1977 (and possibly another dimension), the film follows Jittlov as himself, a struggling freelance special effects artist and filmmaker. His demo ends up at the desk of Harvey Bookman (Richard Kaye), a sleazy producer in charge of Hollywood Studios’ “Hollywood’s Greatest Effects” television special. After making a bet with Lucky Straeker (Steve Brodie), the director, that Jittlov can’t produce anything worth using, Bookman hires the filmmaker to produce a short film for the special, and then sets about trying to ensure that it never gets done. No studio space, no actors, no payment until it’s turned in (and perhaps not even then). Mike sells most of his personal belongings to start work with his friend and producer Brian Lucas (David Conrad), and create a musical short in which he stars as the Wizard of Speed and Time, a spirit of creativity who brings an entire studio to life in vivid stop-motion. Bookman and fate still throw plenty of curve balls his way, including two inept thugs (Gary Schwartz and Frank LaLoggia), various weather mishaps, and a general lack of support from the studio. Still, he keeps his spirits up, meets Cindy, a lovely young actress (Paige Moore), and uses all the special effects at his disposal to try and make movie history.

This is all kind of sort of based on reality. In 1979 Jittlov produced the original “Wizard of Speed and Time” short as a segment for a Disney-backed TV special called MAJOR EFFECTS. The show aired frequently on the Disney Channel (for which Jittlov would create the opening on-air short, with a giant Mickey Mouse satellite beaming down the signal- this appears briefly in the film along with the prop used), and Jittlov’s Wizard was one of many who worked to restore the powers of the titular superhero, Major Effects. As in the movie, the studio used no outside footage and treated it as a showcase for its own live-action effects productions, notably the upcoming epic THE BLACK HOLE. Similarly, the DOCTOR MAGIC pilot for which Mike is rejected is likely a reference to the ultimately underwhelming DR. STRANGE TV movie from around that time.

However real the details, the actual movie is a broad, farcical romp; the characters are comedy types, the laws of physics are bent on a whim, location shooting without a permit starts a citywide manhunt, and special effects are everywhere. Jittlov never met a transition or short shot he couldn’t spruce up with something, and his colorful handmade visual effects add life and energy to the proceedings. The picture simply flows in a different way from most normal movies, bouncing along and always throwing something new at us. It helps that Jittlov is really good at his craft; there’s a lot of impressive stuff here and I’m still not entirely clear on how all of it was done.

Some of the characterizations suffer for this; the thugs Bookman hires seem like knockoffs of Cheech Marin and one of the Mackenzie Brothers, while Cindy’s roommate is the archetypal “sassy black friend”. And to be sure, your tolerance for dumb jokes will be tested, frequently. I, however, love dumb jokes so that’s fine by me. And the actors are solidly game; a number of minor parts are filled out by veterans like Angelique Pettyjohn, superfan Forrest J. Ackerman, and AIRPLANE’s Stephen Stucker (his last role), and the leads are engaging.

One of the major problems of making a movie about yourself in which you are the misunderstood outsider standing up against the corrupt system (getting the girl in the process) is that the whole thing can end up seeming like an ego trip. That the film doesn’t collapse into this is kind of remarkable. Jittlov is so authentically oddball and gentle in his personality that he’s not just likable, he makes a good “type”, someone you can see as a stand-in for everyone who makes home movies or tries to bring a weird vision to life. It’s not so much about him as about the creative spirit.

One bit that may have contributed to Jittlov’s film not getting much circulation is its rather pointed criticism of the Hollywood union system. Jittlov gets rejected for DOCTOR MAGIC because it’s a signatory production, and he would have to join dozens of unions to cover all the work that he does. In a whirlwind sequence, he goes to them all and is swamped under a sea of dues, procedures, seniority restrictions, and redirections (William Z. Ryan plays the various union reps.) As you may know, I supported the WGA strike, and I think the creative unions have done a lot of good work in supporting talent, but there’s a point to be made that the special effects side of things has been weirdly affected by unionization. Effects crews are now massive armies, with little room for the artistry of a Jittlov, a Ray Harryhausen, or a Willis O’ Brien; there are still some big names, but the company masthead tends to overshadow the individual. It’s more complex than unions alone, I don’t doubt, but it’s an interesting issue that the film raises in its offbeat way.

The trailer for this film (which ran in front of the VHS release) says, “Five years in the making! Five days in the theaters!”And then we realize that whoever was in charge of distribution maybe did not do the best job. (This is always the pitfall of independent filmmaking- just because you’ve actually finished a movie doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get to show it to anyone.) Sure enough, the film was gone from theaters before anyone knew it had even been out, and though it received a limited release on VHS and Laserdisc, it received no publicity there either, and I’m not sure if it’s ever been aired on television.

Mike Jittlov reportedly feels that he was cheated by the distributors, and has actually gone to the lengths of encouraging people to bootleg or download the picture, at one point contributing a DVD-quality rip to Bittorrent (that I cannot find at this stage.) There’s another high-quality rip out there, called the “Swordsman” torrent, but I’m having trouble getting that one due to my staggering incompetence with Bittorrent’s not-actually-difficult client software, so I’d check around. Jittlov, who went on to contribute effects to the film GHOST (actually playing the role of the “dark spirits” that drag some of the dead guys away), has remained active in fandom circles and maintains a website (linked above), and from all accounts is great with his fans. The rights to the picture may actually have reverted to him at some point- my understanding of the issue grows hazy here- but he’s understandably nervous about turning it over to anyone for wide distribution on DVD or other media.

So it’s worth keeping an eye out in the weirder corners of the Internet for this picture, though I still hold out the hope that Criterion or somesuch will offer Jittlov unlimited legal control, buckets of money, Swedish citizenship, whatever for the ability to finally give the film the deluxe edition treatment it deserves. But even if it just zips around the information superhighway, THE WIZARD OF SPEED AND TIME is a treat. It’s a great accomplishment for its filmmaker, and a wonderful gift to everyone who’s ever dreamed of making movie magic.

Written, Directed, Edited, and Effected by Mike Jittlov

Grade: B+

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