[Written for Mr. Showbiz]
Some movies become milestones on the basis of quality; others, for being where they are when they are. Mike Figgis’s Time Code is assured of qualifying in the second category. As for the former, the outlook is dubious, but let’s be generous and say that time will tell.
If you haven’t heard (and in category two, hearing about it often packs more of a wallop than actually watching it), Time Code is a movie you watch four times at once. That’s how many panels the movie frame is divided into, with separate takes featuring (mostly) different sets of characters inhabiting the various quarters of the screen. The individual takes, shot with lightweight, handheld digital videocams for 93 uninterrupted minutes, represent actions theoretically occurring at exactly the same time. The practical reality is that Figgis, his three fellow camera operators, and his game cast — who improvised within a proposed storyline, and with certain absolute spatial and temporal marks to hit — shot the equivalent of four feature films a day six or seven times. Figgis then picked the one take of each narrative strand that best fit with the others and came closest to staying interesting. The trick — one of many in this challenging project — was that none of the four would be edited. What we see (or agree to believe we are seeing) is what happened, from four different perspectives, within a few West Hollywood blocks one afternoon late in 1999.
The central situation can be defined in terms of four characters, although these and a dozen or so others cross over into or glance off one another’s itineraries now and again. Emma (Figgis fixture/fixation Saffron Burrows) is a Hollywood wife in therapy and in a desperate love-hate relationship with her husband Alex (Stellan Skarsgard). One of the founders of Red Mullet, a wishfully trendy production company, Alex could stand a little therapy himself: he drinks, abuses whatever other abusable substances are at hand, and fails to take most of the company’s neverending round of meetings. He’s also having an affair with Rose (Salma Hayek), an aspiring actress … who’s in an ostensibly committed relationship of her own with a wealthy lesbian, Lauren (Jean Tripplehorn). Lauren mostly lolls, or writhes, in the backseat of her limo. Emma mostly hangs in space (a Burrows specialty), even when obliged to be in motion. The most watchable action occurs in the warrens and on the periphery of Red Mullet (a name shared with Figgis’s own production company), whose key personnel include Holly Hunter, Xander Berkeley, and Steven Weber as fellow executives, Suzy Nakamura and Golden Brooks as multicultural tokens, and Richard Edson as a borderline-manic indie director. This particular day, Julian Sands (another Figgis regular) is also on hand to give everyone a massage in the style of their choice.
No, we don’t listen to all four panels simultaneously (though once or twice the dialogue ping-pongs from one to another with cheeky synchronicity). Rather like Robert Altman with his unsplit but multilayered widescreen canvases, Figgis fades in and out on the respective soundtracks as the only means of editing at his disposal. Some of the observation is sharp and funny — never funnier than in a description of Time Toilet, a new script “the South Park guys” have written (which has the unintended effect of making you forget about all four panels and start wishing you were watching that movie). But for all its pretensions toward exemplifying a brave new way of making movies, Time Code has less and less to discover as it slouches toward its tritely fatal climax.