Time Code (1999)

by P. Nelson Reinsch


One-Time Performance

You will not, you can not, see the same Time Code I have seen.

All viewers of director and screenwriter Mike Figgis’ latest film will be able to say this, because no two viewers will see the film in the same way, or even see the same film — but more on that in a moment. Figgis has suggested in print and in person, at the screening I attended, that viewers should see Time Code more than once. Of course, he has an economic interest in such repeat viewings (as do the film’s distributor and the production company). But the suggestion that it should be seen, or perhaps more accurately, experienced, multiple times is actually reasonable, when one considers the movie itself.

cover art

Time Code

Director: Mike Figgis
Cast: Saffron Burrows, Salma Hayek, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Holly Hunter, Kyle MacLachlan, Julian Sands, Steven Webber

(Screen Gems)

Some skeptics will dismiss it as merely a gimmick. In truth, Time Code is carefully constructed out of limitations, and the unique opportunities resulting from those same limitations. As many viewers know already, the screen is divided into quarters, with a continuous shot filling each quarter for over ninety minutes. Many also know it was shot entirely with handheld digital cameras. Less well known is the fact that, though working with a narrative structure designed by Figgis, the actors improvised their own dialogue. And to make things a little more complicated, there are 27 characters with speaking parts. In this aspect, Time Code resembles some John Sayles’ films, like City of Hope and Lone Star, and Robert Altman’s Nashville and The Player. The obvious difference between Figgis’s film and these others is that here, four events occur — literally — simultaneously on screen.

Still, Time Code resembles The Player in other ways as well. Like Altman’s film, Figgis’s satirizes the Los Angeles film industry, its insiders and those who wish they were. But Figgis focuses on a specific segment of the industry: the characters work in and around the adult film company, Red Mullett (also the name of Figgis’s own company). Co-founder Alex Green (Stellan Skarsgard) is in the middle of a harried casting situation for his current movie, Bitch From Louisiana. At the same time, his marriage to Emma (Saffron Burrows with her ever-furrowed brow) is in trouble. Alex has promised wannabe star and his lover Rose (Salma Hayek) opportunities to be in Red Mullett films. And Rose is cheating on her own lover, the rightfully suspicious Lauren Hathaway (Jeanne Tripplehorn).

Each of the four characters occupies the attentions of one camera at all times: Hathaway in the upper left, Emma in the upper right, Rose in the lower left, and Alex in the lower right. In the course of the film, their lives intersect in the narrative and on screen, as pairs of them appear on two screens at a time, providing two views of the same interaction. These characters and others are further tied together by calls to one another on their omnipresent cell phones and earthquakes which occur every 20 minutes or so. Shortly before the film’s conclusion, nearly all the characters gather for a meeting where a pretentious director pitches a film which will be made with four digital cameras recording simultaneously, in an amusing moment of self-awareness.

The rest of the narrative is not as smart and seems purposefully straightforward. But the story will not distract you from the real focus, that is, the medium of film and the specific form of this film. Time Code is riveting because of the absence of cutting and the acting, but mostly because of the four simultaneous images. Your eyes move rapidly from screen to screen. You can’t be passive in watching this movie, because your eyes respond to movement or sound in one screen or another, whether the story bores you or not. Your mind constantly speculates as to how images relate to one another, both on the level of the narrative and theme, for instance, duplicity, synchronicity, and how thoroughly interconnected these representative characters’ lives are.

Watching the film, you often feel as though you have missed something, despite your efforts to take it all in. The woman in front of you laughs and you wonder what you’ve missed. The guy on the aisle gasps and you wonder if he sees something you don’t or whether you are simply less shocked than he at what you did see. Soon you start to realize just how selective all films are: as you watch four screens of over 20 characters talking to one another, you can’t help but look in the background at the city full of people, whom Figgis’s cameras are not catching “on purpose.” You find yourself aware of your function as editor, excluding some images to consider others.

This process of editing is not as jarring as some may expect. Indeed, movie audiences may be more ready than ever before to view multiple images. In daily life, “multi-tasking” has become increasingly required (though talking on the phone and driving a car should be discrete activities). Many of us sit at computers each day and have 4 windows of Netscape open, some form of instant messenger, email, or Solitaire, giving attention to each in turn. The film is does not merely present four images and leave the viewer to shift attention at will. At the aural level, the film privileges one signal over the others, so as to draw your eyes to a corresponding screen. Figgis, who composes for his films, uses his jazz-influenced music for more tender scenes, Mahler for scenes of turmoil, and all of the music as a way to direct you to specific screens and moods — though you can, of course, resist.

The key is that the viewer is (almost) necessarily involved. While theorists debate the passivity or activity of film viewers, filmmakers have historically used technology and style (the two are intertwined) to engage viewers in new ways. In the late ‘30s and ‘40s, the deep focus photography of Gregg Toland and other cinematographers was extolled for putting the viewer in (partial) charge of choosing where to focus her attention in each shot. It should also be noted that the self-imposed limitations of Time Code are not, of themselves, new, even in commercial cinema. The elements have appeared before: takes the length technology allows (Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope), split screen (suspenseful scenes in Hitchcock admirer and imitator Brian De Palma’s films, such as Sisters and Carrie), and handheld digital cameras with improvised acting (for instance, films which adhere, more or less, to the restrictive tenets of the Dogma manifesto — Mifune and others). So if Time Code is unique, it also stands in a tradition of innovation, placing Figgis in this list with Toland, Orson Welles, De Palma, and Lars von Trier.

As I mentioned above, Mike Figgis attended the D.C. premiere, providing the audience with the “author” of the film, or, at the very least, the figure who pieced together elements of previous experiments to create his own film. For Figgis, a film without cuts is a film that the studio — and the editor, whom studios normally influence — can not alter. His experiment thus ensures his intended film will be seen by the audience and stand as an assertion of his control over the filmmaking process. At the same time, the specific process of this film’s creation foregrounds the unique collaborative nature of cinema. The four camera operators (one of whom is Figgis himself) filmed with freedom to select framings and movements. The cast creates the dialogue and their performances are recorded without cuts, allowing them time to build up steam, as it were, like actors on stage.

And yet, for its attention to the author, the film also raises questions concerning the “idea of the author,” as extratextual elements further blur (real or imagined) divisions between director, actors, photographers, and viewers. A planned Time Code DVD will allow the viewer to adjust the sound mix of the four images. The disc will also include another version of the film (the released film is the 14th take, out of 15). Figgis also mentioned an upcoming interactive game which will allow the player (viewer) to make another cut of the film or watch (only) one screen at a time. The game and DVD release contribute to the growing recognition among students of film that there is no single version of a film (and there never has been).

Clearly, ideas occur in rapid succession for the viewer of Time Code and even more so to one who attended this particular screening. For one thing, the screening was a digital projection (the system is traveling with the filmmaker). The lack of scratches on the surface of the film and the vibrant colors gave an added immediacy to the image, which made the image resemble a live satellite feed. More fascinating is how Figgis spent his time during this screening: he created a unique and transient version of the film by adjusting the sound throughout. He manipulated the volume of each of the four sections, adjusted the sound effects, adjusted the balance and volume of the music, and using a cd player, added music not on the print. Figgis manipulated the crowd just as a disc jockey plays different songs to get particular reactions from his audience. He stated plainly that this was a “hot music” performance where he adjusted the music to drown out dialogue, as he felt this audience would respond well to this change.

My experience at the premiere highlights the fact that a film is perhaps best understood as a performance, or an event, and therefore not as easily separated from the environment in which it is seen as some might imagine. At least one viewer was not wholly satisfied with the performance, (whether labeled performance or a text). During the Q&A session after the screening, a man said that he found the film’s narrative hard to follow and he asked Figgis if a film’s purpose was not to tell a story. Figgis disagreed and politely answered that the man should consider that books do not face these sorts of expectations that films do.

In other words, film involves many more aspects than narrative, though narrative cinema for too many is defined as film itself. The medium is limited only by how filmmakers and audiences imagine it can be used. Time Code is somewhere between a narrative film and an experimental or theoretical film; it is the sort of work usually done by students who are exploring abstract, aesthetic, or philosophical concepts. But most of us do not see student work, and when we do, it isn’t in the multiplex. For now, Figgis’s quad-screen one-take film is striking and impressive, and though it will likely disappear or be co-opted into a more mainstream form, it excites me. Audiences will, I hope, take up the challenges and opportunities that Time Code provides, and see it as an invitation to participate.

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