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Time Code   B+

Screen Gems

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Mike Figgis
Writer: Mike Figgis
Cast: Stellan Skarsgard, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Salma Hayek, Saffron Burrows, Holly Hunter, Xander Berkeley, Julian Sands.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

There's a scene in Time Code where an independent filmmaker pitches a movie idea to a group of studio executives. She says in her movie the screen will be divided into four areas, with each area showing a different camera's view; each camera will follow a different character around, and sometimes the characters in different quadrants will cross paths and interact. The entire movie will be shot on digital video, all handheld, and it will be shot in real time with no editing. Studio honcho Alex Green (Stellan Skarsgard) starts to laugh uncontrollably. He says that's the most pretentious crap he's ever heard.

Indeed, some people will call Time Code pretentious. And, sure, it is. But it makes for a breathtaking experiment -- one that actually works.

It all takes place during 93 minutes of one day, set against the backdrop of Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard. We meet an alcoholic movie studio producer named Alex, wonderfully played by Skarsgard, who is having an affair with a young actress named Rose (Salma Hayek). Rose, of course, is also involved with Lauren (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who already suspects that Rose is cheating but isn't sure yet. Saffron Burrows plays Alex's wife Emma, who is torn up because of the inevitable demise of their marriage. There are other characters and situations that come into play, of course, and there's even a good ol' murder in store.

At first, Time Code may seem difficult to get into. After all, the screen is divided into four small quadrants -- which one do you focus on? Luckily, writer-director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) makes this fairly easy for us. He raises the volume of the quadrant we should most likely be watching, while the others are muted. It takes some getting used to, but after you get the hang of it you'll find yourself immersed in the film and marveling at its technical virtuosity. The drawback to this, however, is that we don't ever feel a close connection to the characters on-screen. We're always alert, always aware that we're just actively observing. Once we get wrapped up in the story or situation in one quadrant, the volume in another one rises up and our eyes dart over there. Of course, we could keep watching the quadrant that most interests us -- and that's the beauty of Time Code.

From a technical standpoint, Time Code is simply marvelous. The entire film was shot in 93 minutes, using four handheld digital videocameras, with the actors improvising based on a basic plot outline. Unlike that other experiment of improvisation earlier this year, James Toback's very disappointing Black and White, this one actually results in a good film. The soap-opera story is a bit too familiar, but the cast does such a great job that it's easy to overlook.

So does Time Code represent the future of filmmaking? I doubt it. But I'm glad Mike Figgis had the admirable pretentiousness to try something like this, and I'm happy that it turned out as good as it did. Sure, he's also hoping to milk the audience for all they're worth, since you may have to see Time Code at least four times to have actually seen the whole thing.

How very pretentious.

Review published 06.09.2000.

Follow Michael Scrutchin on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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