Movie Review By Casey McCabe
Director Mike Figgis has so much to prove in his new film "Time Code" it's hard to know where to begin. Let's start with the fact that technically it's not even a film. It's shot entirely in digital video, which is vastly quicker, easier and cheaper than shooting conventional 35 mm film. So Figgis must prove that we don't necessarily miss the vaunted richness of celluloid.
Then there are the myriad devices. "Time Code" is shot in four continuous takes without an edit. All four points of view are on screen at the same time. The actors have been given structure and cues, but action and dialogue are improvised. That's really the story of "Time Code." The story it's trying to tell? Something about the lives of a bunch of shallow, duplicitous Hollywood types intersecting one fateful day on Sunset Boulevard.
As far as devices go, most of these have already been tried. Intersecting lives as recently as "Magnolia." The continuous take goes back to Alfred Hitchock's "Rope." The films of Mike Leigh have often depended heavily on improvised dialogue. And I seem to remember a similar split screen technique from "More American Graffiti." But never before in the history of motion pictures has all this been tried at once.
There's a good reason why. And that's what Figgis ends up proving, though I'm sure quite unintentionally.
Regarding the four split screen. Most films use new scenes and edits to direct your attention and advance the story. "Time Code" can only modulate the four separate audio tracks. Which still leaves three passive scenes up on the screen at all times. There must be a good reason why they're there. So your eye wanders from quadrant to quadrant. And finds otherwise watchable actors like Jeanne Tripplehorn, Stellan Skarsgard, Holly Hunter, Glenne Headly, and Salma Hayek basically hung out to dry. With nothing essential to do the actors fill screen time by snorting coke, chain smoking and having impromptu lesbian affairs. Or often just staring nervously into space. I didn't know the actors were required to improvise until after the screening. That certainly explains why there were more awkward than funny moments. And why supposedly high-powered characters appeared so unsure of themselves. It wasn't part of their character. It was because the actors literally weren't sure what they were going to do next. And while in hindsight they all appeared game for this grand experiment, they didn't seem to be having that much….fun.
Indeed "Time Code" requires some explaining. At the screening I attended none other than director Mike Figgis was there to explain it. Figgis' attendance was unannounced, and his accessibility perhaps unexpected for an eminent director of films like "Leaving Las Vegas." Every film is a director's baby, but "Time Code" is a special needs child and Figgis' enthusiastic commitment to it is kind of infectious. He explained that the project started out as a sort of digital video performance art piece he intended to do in London. When Figgis floated the idea past Sony Film exec John Calley at some Hollywood social gathering, Calley encouraged him to put the story in the heart of the studio system and agreed to back it as a feature.
And this explains a lot. "Time Code" has the admirable anarchist pluck of a good performance art project. But stacked up against even a middling feature film, it reveals itself as a noble failure. Without the devices, there is no story.
In the future people may look back on "Time Code" as some kind of watershed. I'll bet they don't look back on it as a good film. Or digital. Or whatever the future decides to call it.
© 2000 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 4/26/00
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