TimeCode - Internet Movie Database Time Code - Nitrate Online Review
Contents | Features | Reviews | Books | Archives | Store
Time Code - Nitrate Online Store
Movie Credits Buy It!

Time Code

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 28 April 2000

Written and Directed by Mike Figgis.

Starring Xander Berkeley, 
Golden Brooks, Saffron Burrows, Viveka Davis,
 Richard Edson, Aimee Graham, Salma Hayek,
 Glenne Headly, Andrew Heckler, Holly Hunter,
 Danny Huston, Daphna Kastner, 
Patrick Kearney, Elizabeth Low, 
Kyle MacLachlan, Mia Maestro, Leslie Mann,
 Suzy Nakamura, Alessandro Nivola, 
Zuleikha Robinson, Julian Sands, 
Stellan Skarsgård, Jeanne Tripplehorn, 
Steven Weber.

The evolving world of high-definition digital filmmaking has taken a giant leap forward with the arrival of Mike Figgis’ brilliant Time Code. Openly experimental yet always entertaining, here is a demanding film that demands multiple viewings to fathom the nuances of its twenty-seven cast members as they improvise (within the structure of the writer’s outline -- not a single line of dialogue was scripted -- and with the characters they have been assigned) about the streets of Los Angeles, their story unfolding on four corners of the screen. Four hand-held, real-time, ninety-three-minute views, one Magnolia-esque story, no on-screen editing. Each member of the audience influences how this project is cut, as your eyes dart from side to side and up and down. On screen, only dialogue, sound effects, and video effects editors are credited.

Part split-screen security-camera voyeurism, but just as much inspired by Dogma ’95, the Danish film collective that opposes the auteur concept and nearly all the accoutrements that blur “the inner lives of the characters” at the expense of the plot. British-born Figgis may not be following the strict manifesto of his European cinematic compatriots, but he offers up striking similarities for later discussion. Indeed, according to a recent interview for indiewire.com, the iconoclast offered that “I made a decision a couple years ago that I'd start inventing my own golden rules. One is that all film is science fiction, all film is black comedy, and character is plot. And the over-emphasis on plot is a waste of time.” The cinematic capability of multiple perspectives was earlier explored by the fiftyish director in Miss Julie, for which he used two cameras concurrently.

Although the press material and some reviews suggest Time Code concerns four stories, it more correctly follows a single linear tale the branches back along four tangled limbs, much like a family tree, often inter-relating and overlapping, quickening as the film races toward its tragic climax. Glenne Headly and Saffron Burrows initiate the film’s top right section, as a therapist and her patient. Jeanne Tripplehorn and Salma Hayek then inaugurate the upper left, as lovers boiling out of a troubled affair. Another key link is filled by Stellan Skarsgård as a fickle excuse of a human being. The entire cast, many veterans of Figgis’ previous efforts (Leaving Las Vegas, The Loss of Sexual Innocence, One Night Stand, Internal Affairs) makes an emotional dent. The characters pop off the screen like the gossip tabloids at the supermarket: cheating bisexual lesbians, cocaine-sniffing ingenues, drug-selling security guards, back-stabbing, inadequate Hollywood executives, fascistic producers, philandering film directors, and just about anyone else you might expect within the imagination and controlled freedom of the cast. As for some comic relief, Julian Sands makes a hilarious impression as an oddball masseur, and Steven Webber develops a demented riff as a Gucci-clad studio exec pushing Time Trash, an absurdist sci-fi project.

The revolutionary simplicity of Time Code -- and its barren $3 million budget (the total U.S. gross for One Night Stand) -- lies in the four concentrated streams of continuous video takes. The director and his crew put his ensemble through their non-stop paces 15 times over ten days. The second (3:00-4:33 PM PST) of two group tapings made on November 12, 1999 is the release version, although Figgis indicated he had extended hopes down the home digital highway. If the project is a commercial success (easily, based on what critics are offering up in praise), then the DVD version will likely embellish extensively interactive features (isolating one screen at a time and dubbing in your own music being just two interesting possibilities). Bonus material would include the first taped “sublimely anarchistic” edition (November 2nd), and perhaps the 14th session.

The logistics involved in this undertaking were daunting. Instead of storyboards, Figgis, a noted composer, tracked his characters and parallel action using music sheets, the bar lines indicating minutes. The initial week’s progress was a comedy of choreographic errors, the organic evolution of timing and blocking by the actors as their contagiously improvise their lines (everyone was given a synchronized digital watch), while the crew maneuvered to keep from falling of everyone’s feet AND prevent themselves from popping up in the frame of another camera. “Technical nightmare” is probably putting it lightly. Every day Figgis would gather everyone together at 10 AM and begin an hour-long countdown before taping would begin at four different locations. Everything wrapped at 12:33 PM as the camera operators ran out of tape. FYI, Figgis photographed the bottom right screen; kudos to James O’Keefe, Tony Cucchiari, and Patrick A. Stewart for handling their marathon efforts, the equivalent of a major league umpire bent over home plate for a major-league game (but without any break between innings). Figgis confided that one of his greatest technical challenges was keeping his camera steady and maintaining focus when he closed in on Weber doing his shtick; he often would turn his head away and think of English food to stop from breaking out in laughter. When one of the units became unsynched, interesting, and ultimately unusable, events occurred. Imagine an earthquake hitting three screens at one moment then three seconds later starting in the other section. Oops.

That Figgis pulled off this exercise with such military precision and made such an enjoyable go of the whole shebang is a monument to his genius. It’s a quadra-optic, but not quadraphonic, adventure, as each vocal track imparts more or less information at any given moment. This is certainly not a hands-free compilation; the director made post-production decisions relating to soundtrack interpolation, in much the same way a composer would blend harmonies in his work.

Visions of the genuine interactive aspects of the feature were dished out early with four especially memorable preview screenings around North America. I caught one in Washington, a unique evening where Figgis single-handedly played film jockey, dabbing on another layer of control beyond what he had already put “in the can.” He created his own rhythm-and-blues overture as filmgoers found their seats. After a brief introduction, Figgis shuffled back to the rear of the auditorium and then, over the next hour and a half, did a live mix of the evening’s presentation. Navigating four tracks of dialogue and separate stereo pairs for the musical track, sound effects (street traffic, numerous earthquakes), and a CD-player, Figgis re- or de-emphasized the actor’s voices in any discrete quadrant based on his feelings that night, tweaked his own soundtrack (he composes most of his films’ scores), and whimsically added some material off a compact disk. At any moment he could always take a break and auto-pilot the film.

While an amazing experience, it did leave some members of the audience confused, especially in portions where Figgis drowned out all dialogue, influenced by the “heat” of the crowd. This night’s entertainment was presented in straight stereo, while the legitimate release mix will have some aural clues (using rear and side surround speakers) to help decipher some of the multiple activity. In a post-screening Q&A, Figgis second guessed that any number of walk-outs (there were a handful) could be just as much as factor of a filmgoer’s inability to deal with the complexities of his blendings, or perhaps was the result of someone’s weak bladder. The director also expressed concern that an army of film jockeys would descend on multiplexes across the country adding their visionary mix to his creation. This won’t happen, at least not until the DVD is released.

One of the most unassuming people in the ever-pretentious film business, his bushy hair and drab attire caught most of the audience off guard when they learned Figgis was part of the show. They hadn’t even realized the film’s director was sitting in the back of the auditorium, bending over an audio board connected by a large cable to the projection booth. Earlier in the day he had brought digital projection equipment down from New York City and installed it at the Loews Cineplex Wisconsin Avenue multiplex in advance of what would be the first true commercial feature digital projection in the Nation’s capital. As one of the couple of hundred participants in this grand experiment, I will remember this night just as someone back in the late 1920s watching The Jazz Singer saw the dawn of the talkies. Digital filmmaking will undoubtedly take many divergent roads over the course of the next few transitional years. People and Hollywood had a hard time accepting the addition of sync sound more than seventy years ago, but Mike Figgis has shown us the future of digital technology. It shall be glorious.

Contents | Features | Reviews | Books | Archives | Store
Copyright © 2000 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.



www.nitrateonline.com  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.