Divide and rule: a sight for four eyes

Time Code (15) <i>Mike Figgis, 93 mins</i>
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The Independent Culture

Mike Figgis's Time Code, about the interlinked private and professional lives of a dozen or so minor Hollywood players (an aspiring young actress, her wealthy lesbian sugar mommy, a philandering producer, his long-suffering wife, etc.) is what you might call a multiplex movie. Its narrative has been split into four simultaneously unfolding segments, each of which occupies a quarter of the screen and lasts 93 minutes, the length of consecutive time a sophisticated digital videocam can run without interruption. The film's own running time is thus literally "real".

Mike Figgis's Time Code, about the interlinked private and professional lives of a dozen or so minor Hollywood players (an aspiring young actress, her wealthy lesbian sugar mommy, a philandering producer, his long-suffering wife, etc.) is what you might call a multiplex movie. Its narrative has been split into four simultaneously unfolding segments, each of which occupies a quarter of the screen and lasts 93 minutes, the length of consecutive time a sophisticated digital videocam can run without interruption. The film's own running time is thus literally "real".

This means that, since all four segments had to be shot together, the film took exactly as long to make as it does to watch. It also means that the constantly interacting performers - striding out of a room under surveillance from one camera, traversing a lobby in which their progress is picked up by another, then exiting the building altogether to be ambushed by yet another already positioned outside - had to synchronise their respective movements with a split-second precision comparable to that which one presumes has been imposed on the cast of Alan Ayckbourn's new twin plays, House and Garden. It means, finally, that fluffs, muffs, slightly mistimed entries and the like were unrectifiable.

There are fluffs - the reflection of a technician's hand in a glass door which he is holding open, a shopfront marquee obscured by pixelation (why?), a line of dialogue stumbled over, an occasional out-of-focus shot - but extraordinarily few when you think how much could have gone wrong. The film's virtuosity is simply confounding; and by regularly reminding us of the perils of such an undertaking, its pardonable flaws ultimately intensify, rather than dilute, our amazement at Figgis's nerve. It is, to be sure, a trifle disappointing to read in the press kit that he shot no fewer than 60 (I repeat, 60) complete versions of the same basic plotline before selecting the one he preferred. But something always seems easier once it has been successfully carried out than before it has even been attempted, and it would be not merely churlish but downright philistine to belittle so astounding a feat because the film's gestation was less spontaneous than it itself has turned out to be. Or, at least, appear.

Comparisons abound. Altman's Short Cuts, needless to say (it's been a seminal influence on what feels like half the movies I've reviewed for this newspaper), but also The Player, both for its LA location and centripetally convergent plot structure. Hitchcock's Rope, celebrated for its series of unedited 10-minute takes, but also the same director's Rear Window (scanning the four screens of Time Code, we resemble Jimmy Stewart guiltily spying on his neighbours through their uncurtained windows). Cubist paintings. Ayckbourn, mentioned above. And, for those with long memories and catholic tastes, certain now-forgotten conceptualist experiments from what used to be known as the American underground. Yet Figgis's film is so sui generis you have to see it to know what it's like.

Time Code is moving, amusing and uniformly well acted. (Even so, I must single out the wonderful Jeanne Tripplehorn. As a gum-chewing, neurotically jealous lesbian obsessed by her girlfriend's infidelities, she's given little to do but pace the streets and sit stewing inside her limousine. Yet how my heart went out to her! I don't chew gum, don't have a limousine and, by definition, am not a lesbian, but, oh God, how she brought it all back!) Considering, then, that the film is not without its share of conventional qualities, the question one has to ask oneself is: would it have worked more effectively in a conventional format? Have too many screens spoilt the broth?

After some consideration (it's by no means a foregone conclusion), I've reluctantly decided that the answer is yes.

The problem is that, if something of a maverick, Figgis has been, for most of his career, a commercial film-maker with the audience-pleasing instincts of all commercial film-makers. He lacks the real experimenter's unbudgeable faith in the self-sufficiency of his experimentation - for its own sweet sake, as it were.

Hence he cannot resist directing us as much as his cast. Afraid that we might be distracted by what's going on elsewhere, he lards the film's emotional crises and climaxes with the adagio from Mahler's Fifth (with its irrelevant echoes of Visconti's Death in Venice). By manipulating his quartet of soundtracks so that decibel levels are heightened or lowered depending on the significance of the action on any individual screen, he steers our ears and eyes exclusively towards what he wants us to hear and see. We delude ourselves that we're free to zap the movie any way we please, but we aren't. Like a card-sharp, he's forever palming on us the one screen he's determined to have us watch at any specific moment.

All that said, and even if not quite as radical a departure from the Hollywood norm as it thinks it is, his film is a consistently fascinating object that richly rewards the attention we're prepared to invest in it. And I remember that, several years ago, while chatting to a friend about contemporary music, I spoke of my admiration of John Cage and was instantly challenged as to whether I'd really care to spend a whole evening listening to his music. "No," I grudgingly conceded - adding, "but I like the fact that such music exists." Similarly, I remain unpersuaded that Time Code has taken the cinema somewhere it needs to go, but, as with Cage's music, I like the fact that it exists.

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