Ready or not, the digital revolution is here. Within a few short years, everyone you know will have their own production facilities and editing suites right on their laptop computers. We’ll all be online auteurs, churning out masterpieces by the dozen in our basement studios. Terrifying, isn’t it? Not to Mike Figgis, the man behind the state-of-the-art digital feature Time Code. With this experiment in real-time storytelling from multiple viewpoints, Figgis proves more than willing to leap heedlessly into the future.
On a November afternoon in 1999, four handheld digital video cameras began rolling near the intersection of Sunset and La Cienega in Los Angeles. Each camera captured- in one continuous 93-minute take – a segment of the Time Code story, which was outlined by Figgis and filled in with improvisations from the actors. For the movie’s theatrical release, the screen is divided up into quadrants, with all four segments playing out simultaneously. The four takes gradually merge into one storyline, with characters crossing over between them. (Just think how much younger we’d all be now if Magnolia had been assembled this way.)
It sounds like a logistical nightmare, and probably was (Figgis and his cast reportedly shot Time Code in its entirety dozens of times before arriving at an acceptable set of takes). It also sounds like the finished product could be a cacophonous mess. But through the use of a meticulously constructed sound mix, Figgis is able to overlay a sense of narrative flow onto the disparate images. While the experience of watching Time Code will no doubt be slightly different for everyone who sees it, the raising and lowering of the volume for each section of the screen will tend to cue most viewers to follow the action in roughly the same way. (The DVD of Time Code will apparently be a more interactive affair, with control of the sound mix placed in the hands of the viewer.)
As a technical achievement, Time Code is certainly a one-of-a-kind stunner. But is it actually any good as a movie? The answer largely depends on your tolerance for show biz satire and insider Hollywood humor. The interlocking stories all revolve around the offices of the fictional Red Mullet production company, where auditions are being held for their upcoming feature Bitch From Louisiana. Wannabe starlet Rose (Salma Hayek) tells her suspicious lover Lauren (Jeanne Tripplehorne) she is trying out for the role, when actually she is carrying on an affair with producer Alex (Stellan Skarsgard). Alex’s wife is having some sort of breakdown, as is his business partner (Holly Hunter). Other characters weaving in and out of the action include an unctuous agent (Kyle MacLachlan), a hyperactive director (Richard Edson) and a blissed-out masseur (Julian Sands).
The first thing to go in a formal exercise like this is usually a sense of humor, so the most surprising thing about Time Code may be how funny so much of it is. The actors’ improvisations are likely the key to keeping up the giddy playfulness. Stephen Weber, late of TV’s Wings, steals every scene he’s in as the Red Mullet executive in charge of comedy development. He has a particularly inspired riff on a project supposedly pitched by the South Park duo of Matt Stone and Trey Parker – a sci-fi epic entitled "Time Toilet." Sands is likewise in top form as the flaky masseur – pulling ears, kneading backs with his elbows, and announcing to anyone who’ll listen, "People call me ‘Q’."
Some of the actors don’t fare quite as well, though. Tripplehorne spends nearly the entire running time holed up in the back of a limousine, chewing gum, rolling her eyes and shaking her head while she eavesdrops on her lover with a hidden microphone. And lord only knows what’s up with the coked-up security guard who lurks around the edges of the action without ever really becoming a part of it.
The most glaring flaws in Time Code are the ones that could have been predicted sight unseen. For one thing, the narrative "breakthrough" is not quite as revolutionary as it at first seems. As mentioned, the soundtrack acts as the movie’s editor, in effect cutting between the scenes even though all the pictures continue to unspool. Even if that weren’t the case, it’s often clear which segment of the screen we should be watching simply because there’s nothing much going on in the other ones (the upper right corner emerges as a particularly dead space – almost nothing of consequence takes place there).
Director Figgis has been in an experimental mode of late, and has taken some heat for being pretentious and self-indulgent, particularly in his recent flop The Loss of Sexual Innocence. Here he skewers that criticism with a drop-dead hilarious pitch session by a self-important indie filmmaker who wants to explode the conventional Eisensteinian film grammar in exactly the way Figgis does here (her pitch is accompanied by her boyfriend Joey Z on keyboards, rapping inane slogans like "Trotsky in the house, diggy-diggy"). The fact is, Time Code is pretentious, and often ridiculous. But compared to the rest of the Class of 2000 (a moviegoing year that so far calls to mind the Bataan Death March), it sure as hell looks like the future of filmmaking.