Four Play

Mike Figgis's Time Code offers an interesting experiment in viewing

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Time Code.
A pinch of Saffron: Burrows steals a convoluted scene
A pinch of Saffron: Burrows steals a convoluted scene
Digital video is poised to become a major factor in commercial filmmaking, and Time Code, the new feature from Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), could be used as a commercial for the process. The movie is not so much an intriguing story as it is a story told intriguingly -- which may be just as well. We become so absorbed in the ramifications of the techniques involved that a more challenging plot might have resulted in sensory overload.

The movie follows the actions and interactions of four people. Stellan Skarsgard plays Alex Green, a movie producer who is cheating on his wife, Emma (Saffron Burrows), with Rose (Salma Hayek), an aspiring actress. Rose's jealous lover, Lauren (Jeanne Tripplehorn), is so suspicious that she plants a bug in Rose's purse to find out what's going on. Most of the movie is set in the offices of Red Mullet Productions, Alex's company. The Red Mullet team, including Holly Hunter, Xander Berkeley, Golden Brooks, and Steven Weber, are trying to proceed with business as usual, while Alex appears to be emotionally unraveling before our eyes. Emma wants to leave him, Rose wants him to help her get a part in the company's new film, and Alex doesn't seem to know what he wants.

Meanwhile, the new film -- Bitch From Louisiana -- has just had its schedule mercilessly cut, throwing director Lester Moore (Richard Edson) into a panic. A flaky massage therapist (Julian Sands) is wandering around the premises. A slick agent (Kyle MacLachlan) is bringing in a pretentious client (Mia Maestro) to pitch a project. (The project she wants to do is clearly Time Code itself.) In short, there is a lot going on, though little of it is earthshaking . . . not counting several aftershocks that hit the area during the course of the story. But we can see trouble brewing, as the increasingly upset Lauren sits out in her limo, eavesdropping on much of the action.

If this were all the film offered, it wouldn't be all that interesting. But consider that Figgis shot the entire thing in real time, in one long take, using four time-synched digital cameras, each with a 93-minute cartridge. At least, that's what the filmmakers claim. While there are no apparent edits in Time Code, there were certainly several moments that could have been used to disguise cutting.

And then consider this: Rather than edit the film together in the usual fashion, Figgis has presented all four tapes simultaneously, one in each quadrant of the screen. He simply forgoes all the advantages of standard montage, in favor of a presentation that lets "audience members . . . literally edit the film in their own way, choosing which images and plots to focus on and follow" (according to the production notes). Well, yes and no. Even though there was no visual editing beyond the synching of the four camera views, there has been, by necessity, quite a bit of work on the audio, and those decisions serve to create a sort of pseudo-editing. To have simply kept the 36 audio tracks -- one mic for each actor, plus some -- at identical levels would have created a cacophony in which most dialogue would have been incomprehensible. So Figgis and his crew had to mix these into a coherent track. As a result, while there are occasions when the sounds for all four images are at roughly the same level, most of the time Figgis has chosen to emphasize those accompanying one of the images, at the expense of the others.

The most obvious analogy is musical. While a symphonic score involves numerous parts playing simultaneously, there is generally one particular melodic line to which our ears are directed. There were other musical elements in the movie's creation. There is no screenplay credit: Figgis only takes a story credit. He claims to have laid out the "script" using musical notation, with bars representing minutes. He specified certain moments when characters had to be at certain spots or where two or more of the cameras' views would intersect. Within that structure and the basic story, he allowed the actors to improvise. For two weeks, they shot a different complete run-through every afternoon; the resulting film is simply one of the 15 resulting versions.

It's an awesome accomplishment in terms of choreography and direction, though in some ways not quite so unheard of. The mechanics of the feat resemble nothing so much as the production of live television dramas from the Golden Age. So simply for its technical freshness, Time Code is eminently watchable, once you get used to the multiple-image composition. But it would be wrong to suggest that this novelty is the film's sole virtue. Despite the temptation to completely separate the technical aspects from the "content," it would be a disservice to do so.

While the story itself may be thin, Figgis's technique allowed the actors to become truly absorbed in their roles, recapturing one of the virtues of stage performance most commonly lost on the big screen. And it provides a theatrical sense of closeness, as though we are bystanders in the midst of the action, only barely managing not to be noticed by the characters.

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