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Figgis's Symphony No. 4

Experimental director borrows musical techniques for the intriguing Time Code

Digital video is poised to become a major factor in commercial filmmaking, and Time Code, the new feature from Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), could be used as a commercial for the process. The movie is not so much an intriguing story as it is a story intriguingly told, which may be just as well. We become so absorbed in the ramifications of the techniques involved that a more challenging plot might have resulted in sensory overload.

The movie follows the interactions of four people. Stellan Skarsgård plays Alex Green, a movie producer who is cheating on his wife, Emma (Saffron Burrows), with Rose (Salma Hayek), an aspiring actress. Rose's jealous lover, Lauren (Jeanne Tripplehorn), is so suspicious that she plants a bug in Rose's purse to find out what's going on. Most of the movie is set in the offices of Red Mullet Productions, Alex's company, where Holly Hunter, Xander Berkeley, Golden Brooks and Steven Weber are trying to proceed with business as usual, while Alex appears to be emotionally unraveling before our eyes.

Meanwhile, the new film, Bitch from Louisiana, has just had its shooting schedule mercilessly cut, throwing director Lester Moore (Richard Edson) into a panic. A flaky massage therapist (Julian Sands) is wandering around the premises. A slick agent (Kyle MacLachlan) is bringing in a pretentious client (Mia Maestro) to pitch a project, which is clearly Time Code itself.

Time-sharing: Stellan Skarsgård stars as an emotionally frazzled movie 
producer who splits his affections between his wife and his lover.
Screen Gems
Time-sharing: Stellan Skarsgård stars as an emotionally frazzled movie producer who splits his affections between his wife and his lover.

In short, there is a lot going on, though little of it is earthshaking, unless you count the aftershocks that hit the area during the course of the story. But we can see trouble brewing as the increasingly upset Lauren sits out in her limo, eavesdropping on much of the action.

If this were all the film offered, it wouldn't be that interesting. But consider that Figgis shot the entire thing in real time, in one long take, using four time-synched digital cameras, each with a 93-minute cartridge. At least, that's what the filmmakers claim. (Two and a half years ago, the makers of the low-budget film Running Time made a similar "continuous shot" claim, when in fact they used dozens of well-concealed cuts.) While there are no apparent edits in Time Code, there were certainly several moments that could have been used to disguise cutting, most obviously the seismic aftershock scenes that required jostling the cameras.

And then consider this: Rather than edit the film together in the usual fashion, Figgis has presented all four tapes simultaneously, one in each quadrant of the screen. He forgoes all the advantages of standard montage, in favor of a presentation that lets "audience members Š literally edit the film in their own way, choosing which images and plots to focus on and follow," according to the production notes.

Well, yes and no. Even though there was no visual editing beyond the synching of the four camera views, there has been, by necessity, quite a bit of work on the audio, and those decisions serve to create a sort of pseudo-editing. To have simply kept the 36 audio tracks -- one mike for each actor, plus some others -- at identical levels would have created an incomprehensible cacophony. So Figgis had to mix these into a coherent track. As a result, most of the time Figgis has chosen to emphasize the sounds accompanying one of the images, at the expense of the others. This has the natural effect of directing our attention to a single quadrant as surely as if Figgis had cut to it full-frame.

The most obvious analogy -- one that Figgis, a former professional musician and composer of the film's score, invokes -- is musical. While a symphonic score involves numerous parts playing simultaneously, there is generally one particular melodic line to which our ears are directed. But audio editing is not the only musical element in the movie. Figgis claims to have laid out the "script" using musical notation, with bars representing minutes. He specified certain moments when characters had to be at certain spots. Within that structure and the basic story, he allowed the actors to improvise. It's an awesome accomplishment in terms of choreography and direction, though in some ways not quite unprecedented. The mechanics of the feat resemble nothing so much as the production of live television dramas from the golden age, when directors had to coordinate multiple cameras on the fly in real time and in a confined space. The difference is that in TV, images from only one camera would be shown at a time, giving the other cameramen an opportunity to set up their next shots.

So, simply for its technical freshness, Time Code is eminently watchable, but it would be wrong to suggest that this novelty is the film's sole virtue. Despite the temptation to completely separate the technical aspects from the "content," it would be a disservice to do so. While the story itself may be thin, Figgis's technique allowed the actors to become truly absorbed in their roles. It also provides a theatrical sense of closeness, as though we were bystanders in the midst of the action.

Not surprisingly, the excellent Skarsgård gives the most compelling performance, but Burrows reaches a similar intensity. The reality of the whole setup is convincing enough that beyond those two it's hard to single out particular performances. In the best sense, it appears as though we were simply surrounded by a group of real people.

Time Code. Directed by Mike Figgis. With Saffron Burrows, Salma Hayek, Stellan Skarsgård and Jeanne Tripplehorn. Rated R.

 
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