TIME CODE

Directed by Mike Figgis

Story by Figgis
(Since all dialogue was improvised, there is no screenplay credit)

With Stellan Skarsgard, Saffron Burrows, Salma Hayek, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Xander Berkeley, Holly Hunter, Mia Maestro and Steven Weber

**



While Nicholas Cage has used the cachet he earned from making LEAVING LAS VEGAS to land huge  paychecks from Michael Bay & co., director Mike Figgis has used his as a license to experiment. So far, he's been able to retain the privilege of funding and distribution from companies like Sony and MGM. In theory, one has to respect this reluctance to go the safe route, but the results have  been pretty disappointing. Given that most of the people whose taste I trust disliked THE LOSS OF SEXUAL INNOCENCE and MISS JULIE, I decided to skip them. However, TIME CODE seemed like too intriguing a concept to pass up, and it turned out to be  as  interesting as it is bad. Calling it pretentious as about as meaningful as calling THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY a comedy: if this film had amounted to anything other than a curiosity, it could have opened arthouse doors to adventurous and successful  work  like Kelly Reichardt's ODE or Sadie Benning's FLAT IS BEAUTIFUL. At best, Figgis could be a decent popularizer, but he's made too much of a botch to do any such thing. 

TIME CODE  is an unintentional mockery of French film theorist André Bazin's ideas about the nobility of long takes and deep focus. On paper, Figgis has
fulfilled Bazin's notions about the freedom these formal techniques offer the spectator: filling the screen with 4 rectangular screens, each containing an
unbroken 93-minute take. There's no editing of the image, hence no manipulation of the audience. So far, so good, but in practice, Figgis guides our eyes and ears as much as as any other filmmaker. He's just had to find different methods. No visual cut could be as forceful as his decision to follow an earthquake tremor with a zoom into Jeanne Tripplehorn's face, while cranking up the sound of her screaming  and turning down the volume on all the other screens. If it weren't for the naivete of  Figgis' interview statements about his film's revolutionary nature, I wouldn't be bothered by this "cheating," but he recalls the silliest assumptions of the Dogma 95 manifesto (minus Lars von Trier's prankster spirit).

The John Cassavetes myth strikes again: jettisoning a  screenplay and relying on improvisation doesn't automatically bring a film to new heights of realism or believability. (Of course, Cassavetes wrote screenplays based on his actors' rehearsals, but his films feel so raw that many people still believe they were improvised.) Here, it just succeeds in making lovers' quarrels and business meetings as boring as to listen to as they usually are in real life. The bulk of the 28 characters, all of whom are involved in the film industry, are uniformly dull, and the jabs at Hollywood are trite and tepid enough to make THE MUSE look like SUNSET BOULEVARD. What little emotional resonance TIME CODE has stems from its sound design. Figgis' background as a musician shows in the sensivity with which he sometimes mixes dialogue, music and sound effects. Although his sound editing is frankly manipulative, it's often quite effective. Unfortunately, it's just as often klutzy. Thirty seconds of a glum Stellan Skarsgard walking to the tune of Everything But The Girl's "Single" is touching, but playing the entire song at full blast destroys the effect.

Overlapping soundtracks with barely audible dialogue, a huge cast with no central character...gosh, I just can't figure out what American director has influenced TIME CODE. With each passing year, Robert Altman's influence over American cinema seems to loom larger, and apart from the split-screen effect, there's little in this film that Altman didn't do better 25-30 years ago. (Granted, Figgis is obviously filtering NASHVILLE through DJ culture,  Dogma 95 and a very...uh, '00 cynicism about the ability of capitalism to co-opt artistic innovation.) In fact, Figgis doesn't even copy Altman particularly well. Paul Thomas Anderson's cross-cutting is more effective than Figgis' visual juxtapositions ever are. Nothing in TIME CODE approaches the poetry of the "Wise Up" montage in MAGNOLIA. With little character or narrative development, the medium overshadows the message by a long shot, which would be fine if only Figgis showed much sensitivity to the specific strengths and weaknesses of video. Unlike Hal Hartley or Fred Kelemen, he never takes advantage of its tendency to blur motion and colors (which usually just looks cheap and ugly, but can be put to beautiful effect), while the handheld videography never approaches the illusion of intimacy achieved by Thomas Vinterberg or the BLAIR WITCH collective.

In some respects, seeing TIME CODE in a theater may be  worst possible way to see it. While Figgis shot 15 feature-length takes, he only used 4 in the final version, and I can easily imagine a TIME CODE CD-ROM or DVD allowing the spectator to decide for oneself which ones to juxtapose and how. As it stands, the level of sensory overload involving in watching it  feels like 93 minutes of channel-surfing, which has its upside and downside. There's always the possibility that something lively is about to happen on one of the screens, but the excess only detracts from any engagement with the characters. In a genuinely interactive version, the project might actually live up to Figgis' claim that "anarchy begets art" or at least provide an enjoyable way to kill an hour and a half. As a film,  it makes him look as bad as the pompous director who pitches her film to Stellan Skarsgard's producer, dropping the name of a European artist or intellectual every other sentence. Give me the real avant-garde or good old-fashioned craftsmanship, but spare me this half-assed muddle.