A story shot in continuous time, tracing events and character trajectories that sometimes overlap, unfolding on four screens at once. Is Time Code a bad movie divided or multiplied by four? However one does the math, it has to be the worst and least bearable film of its year.
Mike Figgis, who once made a couple of good movies (including Internal Affairs ), has become a lazy, pretentious, pseudo-experimentalist. He devised this instant film to display the possibilities of digital video and expanded, multi-media forms. But once he has built his new-technological premise, he has absolutely no content with which to fill it.
A shambling homage to Robert Altman, Time Code grafts the multiple story-thread structure of Short Cuts (1993) – complete with intermittent earthquake rumbles – onto the vacuous, showbiz world of movie pitches, casting couches and flavours-of-the-month familiar from The Player (1992). There is scarcely a single witty line or moment in this supposed satire of the Hollywood industry.
Figgis needs to keep the members of his colourful, game cast (including Holly Hunter, Julian Sands, Salma Hayek and Kyle MacLachlan) within walking distance of each other. An office meeting, an argument in the back of a cab, an audition, a session with a shrink: the scenes drone on, while we wait (often in vain) for the frisson of their coming-together.
Or is Figgis after a less narrative, more formal kind of suspense? At one point, two characters speaking to each other swap screens; at another, we are confronted with four women all in close-up. Big deal! Brian De Palma milks more exacting, exciting, avant-garde effects from the split-screen set-pieces in his action-thrillers.
Ah, but what about the much-vaunted democracy involved here – the supposedly Bazinian freedom granted the viewer to look wherever he or she pleases, to follow their own narrative lines and connections? In truth, it is a rigged game. Much of the time there is hardly anything going on at all in up to three of the screens (pity poor Jeanne Tripplehorn, who has to sit on her own, smoke, chew gum and look anxious for perhaps two thirds of the movie).
What's more, Figgis' sound mix is simple, dull and utterly conventional: we either hear the supposedly important dialogue, or we cruise along on the director's typically execrable selection of middle-of-the-road music tracks.
Freedom is an empty gift in such a context unless there is some rich material for the viewer to discover and interrelate – as in Jacques Tati's infinitely more radical Playtime (1967), which nimbly choreographs as many as seven different plot actions on screen at once.
By contrast, Figgis' decision to eschew any editing within each screen – reviving repressed memories of interminable real-time video art pieces in galleries – forces the inclusion of much inaction, bare repetition and clumsy, time-filling manoeuvres. This is the kind of movie that gives improvisation a bad name; everyone shouts, shuffles, hams, and looks unsure of what to say or where to move next.
All the hype plugging this pathetic excuse for a movie as a "revolution", a "step forward" and an "extraordinary new experience" (even from a respected digital theorist such as Lev Manovich) is a shameless con – particularly when one recalls the literally hundreds of superior experimental-narrative movies from all over the world never released in most countries.
Figgis, meanwhile, threatens to turn Time Code into a never-ending performance event, with live mixes, DVD options and many hours of leftover outtakes – which is my definition of a season in hell.
© Adrian Martin September 2000