Review: Time Code
By Gregory Solman
(Mike Figgis, U.S., 2000)
In the vernacular of multi-camera television events such as live sports programs and live-to-tape daytime dramas, the motion picture Time Code resembles what is known as a "quad split": a live-television director chooses the feeds from four simultaneous camera sources, selecting on the fly the best action to air. It's a vastly under-appreciated art that bristles with the excitement of possibilities continually lost and found, of editing a story in the moment, behind the scenes. In Time Code, Mike Figgis has painstakingly—and often strikingly—coordinated the action of four uninterrupted and interrelated feature-length narratives, then presented the illusion of a live quad split on a single movie screen rather than four TV monitors. Time Code renders the effect of watching four movies in a single gestalt from a broadcast control room or production truck—or, perhaps closer to the director's intent, from the vaguely voyeuristic catbird's seat of a security guard's throne. The movie itself is sort of a lighthearted Altman-movie manqué meets Hollywood Squares (wherein the imaginary contestant might say to the host, "I'll take Stellan Skarsgård to block yet another unmistakable reference to Short Cuts' earthquake-as-metaphor").
Having witnessed or participated in hundreds of hours of such TV production, here's a subjective and hopefully relevant observation: despite what is so often presupposed by proponents of multiple-angle TV broadcasts and interactive narratives, one is struck by just how often in a live event there's only a single best shot for telling the story. Or, rather, the setup and selection of that shot and its conversion from randomly arbitrary to seemingly necessary defines directorial sensibility—in a word, vision.
Telling a story is inescapably undemocratic; what Figgis has done in Time Code seems equally undemocratic, but divided or multiplied by four. Almost incidentally, it's been shot on digital video. The structuring of story, not the medium, is the message here. Figgis foregrounds the process of editing without a single cut.
During the title sequence, Figgis fills his quadrant frames with examples of experimental minimalism—video editing timecode numbers and VU-meter patterns that, bereft of scale, could be pulsing runway lights or an Ernie Gehr effect. Those object-oriented shots, with no "story" content, frame the action slickly when juxtaposed with narrative frames, but fade as the movie(s) start(s) in earnest.
Actress Lauren (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and aspiring actress Rose (Salma Hayek) are lesbian lovers descending from the Hollywood Hills by limo, Rose to an audition, and Lauren, under the pretense of running errands, to keep tabs on her girlfriend, whom she suspects is having an affair. Across town, Emma (Saffron Burrows) unloads in therapy. Meanwhile, at the Sunset Boulevard offices of Red Mullet Pictures, production executives and their assistants, played by Xander Berkeley, Holly Hunter, Danny Huston, Golden Brooks, and a hotshot director played by Richard Edson, among others, await the arrival of Alex Green (Skarsgård), a mogul powerful and egocentric enough to put his sycophants through exasperating paces. Green is conducting an affair with Rose, all the while distraught at his estrangement from his wife, Emma. He and Emma are having coordinated nervous breakdowns. If the movie does have an imaginary, schizophrenic P.O.V., it's either his or hers.
The story, by Figgis, is effervescent, enterprising and Altmanesque. It's fun, for a Figgis film, combining elements of The Player and Short Cuts. Figgis' direction imparts an overarching tone of improvisational, light (soap) opera. It's an object-lesson in television "Q" ratings: when the screen's full of stars, they compete for the eye less through emphasized action than with charisma. Figgis orchestrates the action as fascinating choreography (e.g., complementary shot-reverse shots of Alex leaving one room and entering another) and awkward silliness (groups of actors huddle close together, like a covey of anxious quails, when moving as a group).
But the implicit claims of breakthrough experimentalism fall short of exciting. Figgis himself seems cognizant of this when Red Mullet entertains the pretentious pitch of an avant-garde French director who references everything from Gropius' Bauhaus functionality to Leibniz' monadology to support her theory of the digital filmmaking revolution ("Art/technology, a new unity!"), sending Alex hilariously over the edge. But to avoid a confusing cacophony of four audio sources at once, Figgis usually emphasizes only one source per scene, so he's directing your attention toward a single story anyway. And he drains as many as three screen quadrants of any compelling narrative content at a time. If there's a story-meeting discussion in one corner with sound, but the other three silent quads contain Hayek putting on her makeup, a closeup of Tripplehorn's lovely cocoa-brown eyes, and an empty office lobby, one might as well be seeing only one movie, edited in a parallel montage. In that sense, Time Code is not as advanced or beautiful or exhilarating as Abel Gance's Napoleon triptych of 1927; it's far less complex and innovative than the trippy pop experiment of Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls or Brian De Palma's modern, artful split screens in such conventionally watchable movies as Sisters; and it's not as boldly breakthrough as the widescreen, multiple-character, multi-track conversational overlays of Altman. Because Figgis skillfully mounted four simultaneous 93-minute takes with no cuts, the use of digital video is refreshingly purposeful in contrast to the Dogma95 artists' self-aggrandizing scams. But, unlike Hitchcock's attempts to create claustral tension in movies like Rope and Lifeboat, to what narrative purpose has the actual movie-length take been applied? The eye "edits" every conventional shot in the cinema by its focus anyway. Cinema is anti-monad. A shot is irreducible to a word, or even a simple sentence.
The Los Angeles Directors Guild's top-notch video projection system was employed for Time Code's premiere at the Yahoo! Internet Life festival. But since then, Figgis has bumped up the resolution and transferred the video to film for theatrical release. In the process there hasn't been much discernable gain in image quality. The use of single lenses to capture a range of compositions results in odd angles and unflattering uni-filtered lighting (at least the skin tones could be color-corrected). Frequently tape-to-film transfers lock in the worst characteristics of each media, interframe flicker and feeble image structure. So there's a case for viewing Time Code in high-definition digital video. It will lose something of its essence—and much of its integrity—otherwise. Video's psychologically hypnotic properties—as opposed to cinema's dreamlike quality—reinforces Figgis' aesthetic of unbroken takes and TV-dramedy tone. It's honestly video, not film, particularly in the way it evidences its hand-held means of production. Finally, video has an immediacy, which, combined with larger-than-life image size, imparts a strange intimacy to the performances. Perhaps the digital revolution should be televised instead of pretending to be cinematic evolution.