Special-effects artists directing movies seem to attract weird opprobrium—it seems odd, for instance, to find Joe Johnston on a list of worst directors, when his somewhat bland action and effects films are no worse than most others, and at least are perfectly good-natured rather than openly obnoxious. It's actually surprising that so few effects people have followed the lead of Douglas Trumbull, who followed his award-winning work on 2001 with the features Silent Running and Brainstorm. Effects people interact with nearly every aspect of a film's production, which is more than can be said for, for instance, most actors.
And so to Mike Jittlov, who in 1987 parlayed his experience animating and creating short films for TV into writing and directing The Wizard of Speed and Time, a feature-length celebration of the creative spirit in effects-laden, romantic comedy form. It's the tale of a lonely dreamer, desperate to make his way in the big bad world of movies, but opposed by unions, studios and an unfeeling universe...this could well sink into saccharine wallowing, and at times seems determined to do so. The only thing stopping it is...Mike Jittlov.
By casting himself as the beautiful artist spurned by the soulless system, Jittlov kind of sabotages his own worst impulses to cornball sentiment, because his screen persona, presumably unknown to him, is a lot edgier than his script indicates. When Jittlov grins in his most winning way (with an animated twinkle to enhance his "warmth"), he projects a vulpine aura of carnivorous desire. When he displays the passion of a frustrated creator, you feel he might go postal at any moment and walk onto the Warners lot naked, wielding a chainsaw. When he simply looks at other actors, you can almost feel their body temperatures drop.
I don't want to sound like I'm down on Mike Jittlov: I love Mike Jittlov! His slightly odd presence actually deflects the movie from fulfilling it's less interesting ambitions and takes it into deeper and darker terrain. We get a glimpse of what a true frustrated genius is like: a smiling column of impacted rage.
Jittlov drops the merry jester mask entirely on only a couple of occasions. Once is when we glimpse in his collection of maquettes and memorabilia a text written in diminishing handwriting, finally achieving a microscopic scrawl reminiscent of the tiny notebook Werner Herzog took to keeping while making Fitzcarraldo (Claudia Cardinale: "You had it published, didn't you?" Herzog: "No. I was afraid to read it."). The other is Jittlov's refusal to shake hands with anybody else in the film, apparently a trait of the real-life Mike. It's a real barrier to doing business, this phobia or whatever it is, and his very reasonable suggestion that those who feel the need to grab a portion of another's anatomy in order to feel friendly are the ones with the real problem somehow doesn't wholly convince.
Such is Jittlov's dedication to his art (as if animating himself frame by frame while lip-synching to a self-composed song for the film's climax weren't enough) that for one stunt he trained himself to hold his breath underwater for two minutes, while the camera holds an unbroken shot. The producer wanted to break the long take up with cuts, rather missing the point. But it's arguably a wasted effort: this being a film about special effects, we assume it's a trick. Still, it's an impressive demonstration of artistic dedication. Most special effects films seem to destroy the audience's brain cells, not the director's.
Apart from its disconcerting leading man, the film has lots of bold, cartoony gags, eccentrically ludic uses of the film form, and a genuinely thrilling conclusion, expanded from a short TV piece. Some viewers will find the cheap-and-cheerful comedy of the movie as a whole too anodyne, even with the leering maniac star, but I don't see how anybody could resist the delirious whirlwind conclusion, in which Jittlov becomes the wonderful green-robed wizard and races around the world at Superman-shaming speed. The effects, produced by accelerated motion, stop-motion pixillation and traditional animation, without any actual international location filming or computerized hanky-panky, are not just charming, they're spectacular.
Somebody give the man a million dollars to make one of the dream project screenplays we see in his garage. He's still out there. And that's slightly worrying: supporting his art could be a matter of public safety.
Below is the original short version of The Wizard of Speed and Time, it all its exhilarating glory.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.