New technique, very old story

Review: Mike Figgis' `Time Code' brings digital video to mainstream screens, but the story it tells has been around forever.

May 26, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Time Code" is the kind of experimental digital video movie that until now has been the stock in trade of college classrooms and arty festivals, so if only for bringing an otherwise marginal aesthetic to the marketplace it should be congratulated.

Director Mike Figgis, whose bent has always been for testing rather than resting on laurels, even after the Oscar-winning "Leaving Las Vegas," here tests the boundaries not only of digital video technology but also of narrative itself. Using four hand-held video cameras to film four real-time story lines in one continuous, 93-minute take, Figgis has created a "quadraphonic" movie, which unfolds in a four-way split screen.

The result is a movie that taxes the audience (Which little box should we be watching now? Who's speaking, and whose dialogue are we missing?), fractures space and time in wholly new ways and creates what can only be described as an audacious new formal logic.

In doing away with scripts, editing and conventional montage, Figgis has done away with the most coercive of Hollywood's conventions, allowing filmgoers to decide for themselves where their eyes and ears will lead them, which characters they will focus on and, ultimately, which story the movie will tell.

Figgis' revolutionary way of telling a cinematic story, however, is put to the service of some of the most hackneyed story lines and characters in the business. Craven movie-biz types, piles of cocaine, indiscriminate sex and, finally, the appearance of a gun all seem oddly retrograde considering Figgis' convention-tweaking aspirations. But he has still succeeded in creating not just a refreshing experiment in film storytelling, but also an entertaining one. Once you get the hang of Figgis' own brand of coercion -- one based on an intricate sound design and musical score -- you find yourself happily going along for the ride.

The director, who with three other cameramen followed one character throughout several 93-minute takes, then chose his four favorites as the final cut, has set "Time Code" in Hollywood, where a burned-out and coked-up movie executive (Stellan Skarsgard) is trying to save his marriage to a semi-retired actress (Saffron Burrows) while having an affair with an aspiring one (Salma Hayek). Meanwhile, Hayek's character is having her own relationship problems with her wealthy and suspicious girlfriend (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who is so paranoid that she plants a bug in her lover's purse.

These are the four main characters that "Time Code" follows, although several other compelling ones flow in and out of their scenes: a carefree young actress (Leslie Mann), an earnest masseur (Julian Sands), a worried producer (Holly Hunter) and a drug-addled security guard all vie for the viewer's attention as the principals pursue their daily rituals of therapy, auditions, meetings, sexual encounters and limousine commutes.

The actors, who improvised their lines based on Figgis' carefully choreographed, time-synchronized directions on where they should be at certain times, turn in admirable performances, some of them outright heroic. Tripplehorn's pant-suited power-babe is an especially compelling character, as is Sands' hilarious massage-therapist, who winds up reading lines with Hayek's character at her much-longed-for audition.

Figgis has wrested a surprising range of tonal values from videotape (transferred to 35 mm film for theatrical distribution), and the hand-held filming creates an occasionally explosive immediacy, especially when a series of earthquake aftershocks rock the characters' world. But more than a visual exercise, "Time Code" is an experiment in sound, and a breathtaking example of how and why often overlooked elements such as recording, mixing and music are so crucial to the filmgoing experience.

Figgis, who started out life as a musician, has always fiddled with sound, using overlapping dialogue a la Robert Altman (he uses that director's sound recordist here), sometimes to less than salutary effect. Here, his command is masterful, as is his use of popular music and a beautiful jazz-inflected score, which he composed. Like "Magnolia," another multi-strained story about overlapping lives in contemporary Los Angeles, "Time Code" is operatic in its design and, formally at least, it usually reaches the heights it's aiming toward.

If Figgis can figure out a way to marry his new form to more original content, he may well be on his way to creating a cinema for the new century.

`Time Code'

Starring Stellan Skarsgard, Saffron Burrows, Salma Hayek, Jeanne Tripplehorn

Directed by Mike Figgis

Rated R (drug use, sexuality, language and a scene of violence)

Running time 93 minutes

Released by Screen Gems

Sun score ***

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