If you’ve never heard of The Wizard of Speed and Time, you’re not
alone. This low-budget, independent, effects opus was in jeopardy of
even seeing the end of its problem-plagued shoot. After barely surviving the kind of four-and-a-half year production nightmare usually reserved for Terry Gilliam pictures, it was salvaged virtually single-handedly by its first time director: FX wunderkind and eccentric iconoclast, Mike Jittlov. He could then only watch, helplessly, as it slipped into obscurity.
A fairly routine portrayal of a little-guy-verses-the-corrupt-system, Jittlov’s The Wizard of Speed and Time is elevated by its relentless celebration of the creative spirit. The film’s frames overflow with inventive tributes to the joy of self-expression, undoubtedly a labor of love for director, star, and cult hero Mike "The Wizard" Jittlov. It’s easy to see why Sam Raimi and the Brothers Coen worshipped him as a god in the Church of Cinematology, Jittlov’s inexhaustible energy and resourcefulness shine throughout; his do-it-yourself-mentality is indy filmmaking personified.
Making Robert Rodriguez look like a slacker, Jittlov not only acted as writer, director, star, co-producer, composer, and editor, he claims to have set a record for most jobs worked by a single man on a feature production, which reportedly approached over two hundred positions, including casting, doing his own stunts (including quite a few dangerous ones), and personally creating every special effect in the movie, which was made prior to the advent of computer generated imagery.
Ever the renegade innovator, his hyperkinetic stylistic flourishes make today’s MTV’s editing look downright glacial at times: he meticulously packs each scene with superimpositions, rear projection, motion control, robotics, subliminal messages, claymation, time lapse, life-size stop motion, lip-sync pixilation, hand-drawn animation, rotoscope, kinestasis, and practically every other conceivable violence that can be committed to film stock. Aside from these blink-and-you-miss-it optical effects, a few of which he demonstrates how to do, he even pulls off a Houdini-worthy act in a swimming pool that will have you wondering to yourself "How the hell did he do that?" yet again.
The movie is based on a short film of the same name that Jittlov made while taking his first animation class at UCLA. His teachers were so impressed that they entered it into the 1969 Academy Awards, where it was a finalist. The story picks up with a starving visual effects artist as he tries unsuccessfully to peddle his demo reel around to various disinterested Hollywood moguls, so he can help chip in with mom’s rent money (Mom: "Did you find a job today?" Mike: "Almost, I sold my car,"). He gets what could be his big break when a dream job comes his way via fraudulent producer Lucky Straeker (in a surprisingly effective turn by Steve Brodie). Predictably, the gig turns out too good to be true when Mike discovers that he was hired only to win a bet, but he delivers a movie anyway.
The plot bears several curious parallels with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. These extend a bit furtherboth Tim Burton and Mike Jittlov were former Disney animators who split the Mouse House to finance their own directorial debuts. However, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure enjoyed more than a three print-distribution in the North American market, which helped to further cement the underground status of this lost gem.
By no means perfect, the film’s redundant satire of the hypocrisy and absurdity of Hollywood unions was obviously cathartic and born out of personal experience. However, it becomes a bit heavy handed at times. Likewise, the characters are also generally broad and two-dimensional, (a possible side-effect of studio rewrites). And while the whole thing is more than a bit self-indulgent, its singular vision shines through brilliantly.
Though given a limited release, The Wizard of Speed and Time was sabotaged by Brodie, the slimeball producer who played the film’s slimeball producer. Allegedly Kaye stole over $100,000 out of their production company for personal expenses, improperly signed over all rights of the film to Shapiro-Glickenhaus, made a merchandising deal without Jittlov’s permission, made an unwanted product placement deal, and generally acted like a jerk. If that wasn’t bad enough, fate would have it that Jittlov’s film was overshadowed by Universal’s The Wizard -considered by most to be nothing more than a feature length Nintendo commercial.
Despite Jittlov’s valiant efforts to fight off the studio’s attempts to abort his baby-only to have it yanked from his hands and thrown out the hospital window after birth-The Wizard of Speed and Time is a survivor. It transcends its low budget and wins the moral victory by remaining a technical and emotional triumph. Each of its hundreds of throw-away slapstick gags and infectiously silly songs remain an ode to the under-appreciated effects guys who give Hollywood its sparkle. So say what you will about his film, but it’s hard to deny that would-be auteur Jittlov is an inspiration to the struggling artist in each of us.