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The Boston Phoenix Leaving Montage

Mike Figgis breaks Hollywood's time code

By Peter Keough

MAY 15, 2000:  Who knows what impact montage -- the cinematic commonplace of breaking a narrative into discontinuous bits and pieces -- has had on the way people look at the world? Its eight-decade domination of the screen has at least abbreviated most viewers' attention spans. They will be duly challenged by Time Code, Mike Figgis's latest and most successful audacity.

With the screen split into four parts, each section showing the same story from a different point of view and each filmed simultaneously in real time and in one continuous take with a digital camera, Time Code will confront, if not alienate, those used to seeing barely one movie at a time. It's worth the aggravation; despite the inevitable lapses into pretentiousness and contrivance (montage may be an artifice, but Figgis's alternative is even more so), this is that rare commodity, a philosophical movie -- and an entertaining one.

Figgis's ambitions have remained laudably high since his breakthrough hit, Leaving Las Vegas, but the execution has been lacking. He's examined point of view and fate in the underrated sex farce One Night Stand, autobiography and myth in the erotic epic The Loss of Sexual Innocence, and stiff staging and bad casting in his adaptation of Strindberg's Miss Julie. In each, the themes of bad faith and corruption have been prominent, and they are again, consummately, in Time Code.

Alex Green (polymorphously melancholy Dane Stellan Skarsgård), whose time line takes up one of the four split screens, is a dissipated producer faithless to both his art and his wife. She's Emma (Saffron Burrows), whose face is one of the first we see as she relates to her therapist (Glenne Headly) a dream that will prove prophetic. Lauren (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is a limo-bound sugar mommy who suspects her lover Rose (Salma Hayek), an aspiring if talentless actress, of auditioning on Alex's casting couch. And last and perhaps least is Randy (Danny Huston), the coke-dispensing security guard in the lobby of the Hollywood office building housing Alex's Red Mullet Productions, where most of the action takes place; he's the film's Greek, or perhaps geek, chorus.

Arrayed like celebrity boxes in Hollywood Squares, or a bank of security video monitors, the four frames vie for center stage. Figgis provides some guidance by augmenting the sound of the most significant image, but eventually the structure takes on a kind of fugal form, as themes merge and interplay and rise to climaxes. The story that emerges is a familiar Hollywood Gothic of enervated-male treachery and spurned-female revenge; it's reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard, though Figgis's sensibility and style is more akin to Robert Altman than to Billy Wilder. Think Short Cuts without cuts (though with not just one but four earthquakes), The Player with a different set of rules.

Figgis's satire of his own industry doesn't boast the savvy or bite of Altman's masterpiece, but it does have its share of hilarious and luminous moments, many surrounding the dope-addled misadventures of auteur Lester Moore (Richard Edson), director of the notorious Yo, Grandpa!, who's currently botching pre-production of Bitch from Louisiana, one of Red Mullet's ongoing crises. The company's biggest problem, though, is Alex, who has declined into sloppy alcoholism and sexual anarchy that reaches a nadir when he plucks Rose (quoting from the William Blake ode to decay of the same name along the way) behind a movie screen while his colleagues watch rushes from a new opus. The bug planted on Rose by Lauren transmits this indiscretion back to Rose's distraught lover, topping off the self-reflexive voyeurism.

Self-reflexivity verges on self-parody with the last-minute arrival of avant-garde superstar Ana Pauls (an otherworldly Mia Maestro), a European artiste pitching her goods to the board of Red Mullet. A manifesto accompanied by a live hip-hop accompaniment from her boyfriend, Joey Z (Alessandro Nivola), that's filled with references to Eisenstein and Leibniz, it denounces the reign of montage and ushers in a new age of collage. In other words, it's a description of Time Code itself.

Alex earns the audience's sympathy when he laughs derisively and dismisses Ana's aesthetics as the biggest bunch of crap he's ever heard. But as in the Jorge Luis Borges story "The Other" that Ana wants to adapt as her first project, a chilling moment of recognition occurs, and as the four screens coalesce into their inevitable single image, the tawdry becomes tragic. Despite Time Code's occasional lapses, Mike Figgis's film makes it hard to look at movies, or the world, the same way again.

Walking that fine line between fulfilling his own complex vision and making a film that's palatable to John Q. Moviegoer.

'I think our narrative film style needs a shake-up'

Of all the words bandied about to describe Mike Figgis's work, "pretentious" is not the least used. So when, in Time Code, a black-clad Central European artiste pitches a breathless manifesto to an LA production company that cites Gropius, Eisenstein, and DeBord while describing the tenets of the very film she inhabits, it's hard to miss the irony. But the real joke is that, despite the hysterical laughter of the studio head at hearing her preposterous crap, Figgis believes in much of her spiel. Sitting in the Eliot Hotel, the director laughs as he describes the contradictions at work in the scene. The goal, he says, was to "reiterate to the audience what it is they're watching in such a pretentious way that you're pushing the envelope of credibility. Even though what she's saying is radically true."

Figgis was acutely aware of the fine line he walked between fulfilling his own complex vision and making a film that's palatable to John Q. Moviegoer. "The linear narrative had to be fairly straightforward and simple. The easiest thing in the world with a thing like this is do such an obscure kind of visual performance art that your snobbish and elite art group would take great joy in saying they understood it and other people would just walk out because it's too obscure for them."

Nonetheless, Figgis's need to hurl something radically new at the screen was real. And after toe-in-the-water dalliances with split screens and atypical film stock in Miss Julie and The Loss of Sexual Innocence, he dove headlong into this digital, four-screen, no-edit, all-improvised movie. "I think our narrative film style needs a shake-up. And one of the reasons I did this [without cuts] was that I dislike the fact that the editing process is very much the period where the film falls back into studio control and is basically bending over, asking to be assaulted."

At least in the early going of Time Code, it's the audience that feels assaulted. The film is a total sensory overload. Images and sounds duke it out for your attention. But Figgis is adept at manipulating the sound of each quadrant (at some early screenings he did it live in the theater; on DVD he wants it to be an interactive feature), and those modulations are what push and pull your eye from one corner to the next. Before long, it becomes second nature to keep tabs on the larger proceedings while winnowing in on individual scenes.

This "cinematic cubism" (Figgis's term) that fractures the screen into four parts obviously owes to the explosive abstractions of visual art. But Time Code's structure also arises from Figgis's own musical proclivities. He's renowned for composing his own scores; in this instance, however, his musical instincts play an even more encompassing role. "The first structured education I had was studying music. And I realize now that the way it has influenced everything else has really thrown open my structural understanding." Figgis even wrote the film's "script," such as it was, on music paper. "I immediately had a system . . . where each stave was a camera and each bar line represented one minute. I gave each character a color and was able to see, at a glance, when they moved from one camera to the other. It's much easier to write like a piece of music -- to write the melody line all the way through and then to start to fill in the harmonies. I realized I had such a real advantage that I'd never had before as a writer when doing scripts in conventional form." -- Mike Miliard

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