Radical 'Time Code' puts viewers to work

The big news about Mike Figgis's new picture, Time Code, is that it was shot entirely with digital video equipment instead of regular movie cameras and film.

The bigger news is that it was photographed in "real time," telling its story without the shot-to-shot editing that's found in almost every other movie ever made.

The biggest news is that "Time Code" isn't one movie but four movies, unfolding at the same time in four adjacent portions of the screen. Sometimes the different images complement one another - showing the same action from varying perspectives, for instance - and sometimes they diverge in unpredictable ways, requiring us to figure out how they relate to one another.

Some are hailing "Time Code" as a bold experiment, a radical new vision, even a glimpse of cinema's future. Others are more skeptical, pointing out that avant-garde innovations have sprung up for decades without seducing Hollywood away from well-worn formulas and time-tested formats. Doubters also wonder if the picture's story, characters, and ideas live up to their inventive setting.

Wherever you stand on the merits of "Time Code" as a Saturday-night movie, though, you have to admit it's different from anything else around. That goes for the production process as well as the on-screen results.

Figgis has always been an adventurous director, making offbeat pictures like "Leaving Las Vegas," which earned popular acclaim despite its uncompromisingly downbeat plot, and "The Loss of Sexual Innocence," which is more a thematic exploration than a linear story. While assembling a split-screen scene for "Miss Julie," his recent adaptation of August Strindberg's classic play, he started thinking about the expressive possibilities of lengthy shots assembled side-by-side instead of one after the other. He also thought about music - he's a trained composer who often scores his own films - and his interest in improvisation by performers of all kinds.

All of which led to the unorthodox methods that brought "Time Code" into being. Figgis wrote a bare-bones story about an aspiring actress, a drug-dealing cop, various film-industry figures, and many other characters. He gave this outline to the cast, but left every detail of their performances - words, movements, costumes - up to their individual choices. Every day they improvised the entire film, photographed without interruption by four digital video cameras.

In the end, Figgis had about 60 complete versions, from which he selected the four that pleased him most. These are what "Time Code" audiences see, mounted alongside one another on a single screen, with sound coming from whichever picture most deserves our attention at the moment.

On some levels, "Time Code" builds on a string of multiple-image experiments dating back to Abel Gance's silent epic "Napoleon" and continuing through Andy Warhol's amazing "Chelsea Girls" and some of Brian De Palma's pictures, to name just a few examples. Such movies make the viewer into a central part of the creative process, since you can't sit back and passively absorb the story.

On the contrary, you have to assess differing bits of information and piece them together on a moment-by-moment basis. Since no two spectators will do this precisely the same way, "Time Code" will be a somewhat different movie for everyone who sees it - and perhaps for the same person on two different viewings.

The film's most disappointing aspect is its story, which makes little effort to get beyond standard melodramatic fare. More impressive is the cast that brings it to spontaneous life, including Salma Hayek as the actress, Jeanne Tripplehorn as her suspicious lover, Stellan SkarsgŒrd as a sleazy executive, and Richard Edson as an anxiety-ridden director. Also on hand are Holly Hunter, Kyle MacLachlan, Julian Sands, Saffron Burrows, Laurie Metcalf, Viveka Davis, Danny Huston, and plenty of others.

Time will tell whether "Time Code" marks a major shift in film history or a momentary blip on the cinematic radar screen. The latter prospect is more likely, and it won't be surprising if the picture prompts more term papers than ticket sales.

What's incontestable is that director Figgis and his collaborators have been brave enough to push the envelope of commercial filmmaking more vigorously than anyone else in recent memory. This deserves a rousing cheer, even if the movie's story doesn't.

*Rated R; contains sex and violence.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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