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TIME CODE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Saffron Burrows, Salma Hayek, Holly Hunter, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Stellan Skarsgard
Director:  Mike Figgis
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  97 Minutes
Release Date:  December 26, 2000

Film ****

As a student of cinema, I can really appreciate the amount of hard work, dedication and effort it takes to make a great film.  In the case of Mike Figgis’ Time Code, I’m absolutely awestruck.  In all my years of movie watching, I’ve never seen anything like it, nor will I likely ever again.  This has to be the most technically audacious picture I’ve ever seen.  Yet he, his crew, and his amazing cast of actors managed to turn one of the medium’s most daring experiments into an unqualified triumph.

Using digital video cameras instead of traditional film ones, Figgis was able to shoot continuously for 90 plus minutes without any cuts, which he did not only once, but four times here.  The screen is split into quadrants, and each piece of the picture represents one of four cameras that films continuously without breaks and in complete real time.  They are focused on separate parts of a complex story that takes place in and around a movie studio office.  All parts of the story run concurrently, and the characters sometimes wander in and out of each other’s frame, interacting at key or comical moments, or sometimes merely passing each other on the way to crucial events.

To delve into the story would be to unravel the cinematic fabric…this is the kind of storytelling that only film could relay, and to discuss the actions in print apart from the images would be like taking the string out of a pearl necklace:  it would fall apart.  I’ll try to tread cautiously:

The characters include Lauren (Tripplehorn), a rich woman involved with Rose (Hayek), a would-be actress who might be cheating on her.  Lauren implants a listening device in Rose’s purse when she heads into the offices for her audition, and spends a great deal of the movie listening in while we get to watch both her reactions and Rose’s actions at the same time.  There is Alex (Skarsgard), a head man at the studio with a bit of an alcohol problem, and his sorrowful wife Emma (Burrows), who has just about decided she’s had enough.  There are, of course, other characters along the way…some who seem incidental at first but later prove significant.

Essentially, there are four stories at work, and yet at the same time, really only one.  Films like Nashville originally set the stage for large, sprawling character epics where individual tales came together via the “chance” intersections of key players.  Mike Figgis has taken it a step farther here, not by juggling the stories, but by making them all run side by side.  It’s not as confusing as it sounds…by simple audio manipulations, we are always directed to the key quadrant at any given time, while his impeccable sense of direction allows other stories to relax or come to life at just the right moments to either win or surrender our attention.  But all four screens are there for our exploration, and repeated viewings of the movie reveal many gems.

To call this picture a technical masterpiece is an understatement.  As I mentioned, it really blows my mind to think how difficult a film this must have been to orchestrate…yet here it is, in technical perfection.  A solid hour and a half with no cuts…yet no blown cues, no flubbed lines, no missed marks, no miscommunications.  Even when earthquakes occur in the stories, which are strictly camera shaking effects, they all manage to start and end at the same times, with the actors in perfect harmony.  There are even scenes where the cameras come together in singular locations, and give us varying points of view of the same scene.  These cameras are always moving…yet they manage never to film each other and destroy the illusion.

The more one appreciates the technical aspect of movie making, the more one will love this film, which certainly makes no attempts to disguise its techniques in favor of the story.  Rather, this is a case where the story (and even the characters) are highly secondary.  This is not the future of moviemaking, in other words.  We may never see another picture like this, and truth be told, we probably shouldn’t.  This was an experiment carried off successfully by a master craftsman, and it exists only for those who love the art form and can savor the extraordinary achievement. 

Video ***1/2

This transfer came directly from the digital video sources…in other words, no film ‘middleman’, and therefore, no widescreen presentation.  I’m not completely sure how I feel about this…video looks likes video, even if it’s digital, and that can be a bit of a distraction when you’re used to looking at film.  Still, there are no real image complaints…the digital quality is a plus, and there certainly are no problems you might expect from standard analog video.  Images are generally bright, sharp and clear, with good, natural coloring, and the lighting is effective throughout.  Even one or two darker scenes are constructed in a way where key information is visible (standard video tends to muddy everything out).  Film may be film, but this is still a quality presentation from Columbia Tri Star.

Audio ****

The audio may be the most crucial ingredient at work here, and it’s extraordinary.  I highly recommend the 5.1 track if at all possible.  Most surround sounds exist to bring the experience of the film to life for the viewer, but here, the audio is all about maintaining four lines of action simultaneously, and the splits and surrounds are used constantly and to perfection in order to make the balance work.  Even the musical score gets into the multi channel mix.  Sometimes, it comes strictly from the rear stage so as not to detract from the dialogue.  Other times, when all four lines are brought up simultaneously, you get discreet action from all corners for an excellent mix of audio.  The earthquakes even let your subwoofer in on the fun.  This is definitely the most creative and involved use of 6 channel sound for a non-action or non-music DVD I’ve heard.

Features ****

One thought that kept popping in my head during my viewing of the film—how in the world could you write down a script for four simultaneous scenes?  I couldn’t picture it on paper at all, but thanks to the Video Diary documentary included on this disc, I learned the secret…sheet music.  Mike Figgis arranged his entire movie using four staff bars to represent the cameras, and counted off his measures to represent where certain parts would be in sync.  Brilliant, and it was just one of the things I learned from this disc.  For another bonus, you get Version 1 of the film in its entirety (the theatrical version was number 15; the last one shot).  You can compare the two versions and witness the evolution by both the actors and the technicians over the 15 takes of the movie.  Both versions have optional commentary by Mike Figgis, a man who really loves his work and speaks with a quiet but infectious enthusiasm.  There are also talent files, a trailer, a booklet with production notes, and some DVD ROM bonuses, including a look at the script in musical score form.  Outstanding!

Summary:

Time Code is the kind of film I respond to in my gut:  a challenging, technical marvel that amazes with its flawless execution.  It never misses a beat.  It may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but anyone who appreciates the art of cinema and is excited by seeing things on screen that haven’t been seen before, this is a can’t miss masterpiece, and a possible historical landmark.