The central gimmick of "Time Code", the latest film from "Leaving Las Vegas" director Mike Figgis, is that the screen is divided into four quadrants, providing the audience with images from four different cameras, all at the same time. Unlike the traditional cinematic storytelling paradigm, where the editing process cuts from one subplot to the next, the story threads of "Time Code" occur simultaneously as four uninterrupted 93 minute-long takes, without the benefit of editing to pick and choose what the audience sees. Instead, Figgis turns up the volume of the dialogue in the quadrant of interest, highlighting the dramatic moment as it occurs, before jumping to the next quadrant. In essence, Figgis has brought the concept of multi-tasking into the world of filmed entertainment.
For those moviegoers interested in how the envelopes of narrative, production, and performance can be pushed or reshaped by technology, "Time Code" serves as an intriguing marvel of what is possible. On the other hand, those moviegoers in search of more substantive entertainment will probably find the film's central conceit to be little more than a pretentious intellectual exercise that dresses up an otherwise contrived and uninteresting story.
Shot in Los Angeles on one continuous take on the afternoon of November 19th, 1999 (following fifteen less successful takes over the previous two weeks), "Time Code" follows two dozen characters whose lives criss-cross at the headquarters of Red Mullet Productions. The nexus of the story is Alex Green (Stellan Skarsgard of "Ronin"), one of the co-founders of the rising production company, whose irresponsible behavior triggers much of the drama in the story.
Through the eyes of the four cameras, we are introduced to a procession of players. We see Emma (Saffron Burrows of "Deep Blue Sea") relating the details of her crumbling marriage to her psychiatrist. The wealthy Lauren Hathaway (Jeanne Tripplehorn of "Mickey Blue Eyes") uses a hidden microphone to spy on her lesbian lover Rose (Salma Hayek of "Dogma"), an aspiring actress using the pretense of an audition for a clandestine rendezvous. Director Lester Moore (Richard Edson) is faced with a two-day deadline to find the lead actress for his latest film, a part that actress Cherine (Leslie Mann) is hoping to get. The other two co-founders of Red Mullet (Steven Weber and Holly Hunter) are trying to keep the company moving forward, despite the distractions of Alex's drinking and womanizing. Meanwhile, a masseuse (Julian Sands, a Mike Figgis regular) is quietly making his way through the company to offer all the executives a free massage to promote his own company. Finally, performance artist Ana Pauls (Mia Maestro of "Tango") and her rapper boyfriend Joey Z (Alessandro Nivola of "Face/Off") are eager to pitch their idea for an obscure arthouse film to Red Mullet, aided by their agent Bunny Drysdale (Kyle McLachlan of "Twin Peaks" fame).
Initially, many viewers will probably find "Time Code" confusing, as they try to pay attention to four different things happening at the same time, catching snippets of dialogue in an attempt to figure out exactly what is going on-- much akin to watching television while surfing the 'net at the same time. However, it becomes quickly evident that for most of the film, the most important action is only occurring in one quadrant, or at the most two, at a time, with the rest of the quadrants containing 'filler', such as characters walking to the next scene, or having unimportant side conversations. Fortunately, even if you don't catch all the dialogue, the film's minimalist plot makes it easy to follow the story (which cuts both ways, as I will discuss below).
From a purely logistical standpoint, "Time Code" is a remarkable achievement. The filming was done with digital video cameras (since film is constrained by 10-minute reels) and the image quality rivals the richness of film, even when blown up onto a movie screen. The actors also improvised their lines around a predetermined schedule of endpoints where timing was critical, which included having to simultaneously react to on-screen earthquakes that occurred at specific milestones in the story. Without the benefit of the editing safety net, Figgis and his actors were able to tell a 93-minute long story, a feat that certainly must have pushed their technical, logistical, and acting abilities to the limits.
But from a purely narrative perspective, much of what happens in "Time Code" is underwhelming. The linkages between the various characters are gradually revealed and some revelations are made, leading to the dissolution of some relationships and the formation of new ones-- there is little in the way of thematic subtext or profundity found here. At times, the coincidences and contrivances strain credibility as characters collide into each other in a short space of time. If the story had been shot in a more traditional matter, "Time Code" would probably not have garnered that much attention.
However, even within the confines of such a simple and unimpressive story, Figgis still manages to create some memorable moments with the help of his unusual narrative style. There are moments, though few and far-between, where the events in the four quadrants converge into a whole, creating a unity between the film's form and function. One sequence has Alex juxtaposed with the three women whose lives have been thrown into disarray by his philandering. Another sequence has the discovery of infidelity by one character in the leftmost quadrants parallel that of another character in the rightmost quadrants. The film's closing has three characters on their cell phones, with drastically differing reactions to an event detailed in the fourth quadrant. And probably in what is the most inspired moment, there is even a cryptic pitch of the film's central gimmick to the executives of Red Mullet.
"Time Code" is a challenging film, and certainly not for everyone. While mainstream audiences will consider "Time Code" to be a gimmicky bore, students of the craft will probably find it to be one of the most innovative films to come along in recent years, where the execution is more important than the substance. Perhaps this film is best-suited for at-home viewing-- it is rumored that when the film arrives on DVD later this year, viewers will be able to 'blow up' a quadrant of interest and watch it in the conventional full-screen manner, as well as jump between the soundtracks of the different quadrants to create a somewhat 'interactive' viewing experience. Whether "Time Code" changes the way films are produced and the way we see them, or ends up being no more than a blip in the annals of film history, it is undeniable that Figgis has created something truly unique that flies in the face of traditional film-making. What will they think of next?