Structure in Timecode

Photo © 2000 Screen Gems/Red Mullet Productions
NICK: So, let's not bury the lead: Timecode is mostly and justly famous for the way it was filmed and assembled. Here's the skinny, as I understand it. Mike Figgis sketched out a skeletal scenario with key dramatic beats for his cast, leaving lots of room for them to improvise. He hired three other camera operators in addition to himself, and these four men each simultaneously filmed a continuous 90-minute take on a handheld digital camera. Lines of action and objects of photography occasionally overlap. Figgis, cast, and crew ran the scenario several times, tweaking the story, the characters, and the choreography each time. What debuted in theaters and is now on DVD is the fifteenth "take," enacted and recorded on Friday, November 19, 1999—although connoisseurs of DVD supplements may be interested to know that the first "take," filmed two weeks earlier, is available in its entirety on the Screen Gems/Columbia disc.

For the completed film, Figgis composites these four unbroken shots into four quadrants of the screen, so that you concurrently absorb four "paths" or "versions" or complementary "sides" of the same aggregated story. The DVD also lets you pick which of the competing soundtracks you want to emphasize at a given moment, though the default is the subtly shifting mix orchestrated for the theatrical release by Figgis and his sound team, including Gus Van Sant's frequent collaborator Leslie Shatz.

Am I leaving anything out, or getting anything wrong? If no, or even if yes, what's the first thing you want to say about this approach. Interesting experiment? Empty gimmick? Missed opportunity? Hit and miss? And have your thoughts changed at all from your first in-cinema viewing to now?

TIM: Figgis's whole experiment dictates that each viewing is a pretty singular one—how could it not be, with so many characters bustling and interacting in all four corners of the screen, so many visual and sonic juxtapositions to explore, and even more to unearth if you use the interactive sound feature on the DVD? The entire concept approaches a kind of audiovisual jazz for me, and I love the scope it creates for actorly solos—more on the performances later—but also genre discords between the comic and dramatic, the navel-gazey, and the satirical. The way he lets images overlap, mirror each other, or riff alongside each other never ceases to impress me, but I'll try and be more specific. At minute 22 he orchestrates a neat coup with women's faces, so that the four quadrants go in one by one for a tight close-up, in one case on a viewing monitor; the effect is hardly in place before he lets it disintegrate, a tiny moment of harmony amid the chaos. (He does something similar around minute 77.) Not to impinge on story elements, but I always think it's smart that he uses a recording device, the bug in Salma Hayek's handbag, to establish a kind of aural axis from top left to bottom right—it's the key structural device through the movie's middle section.

There are so many wonderful grace notes, among them the dazzling moment where a reflective limousine window is wound down, and Jeanne Tripplehorn and Leslie Mann, one inside the car and the other on the sidewalk, sort of bleed across each other's demarcated space and back again (neither appears in the other's corner at any other point in the movie, from what I recall). There's another expertly orchestrated scene where two of our key players collide in the street without recognising each other, while two more gaze down their own images in bathroom mirrors, where they are having a kind of synchronised meltdown. Wherever I'm drawn in terms of performance or story on each viewing, I always thrill to these encounters, little jests, and orchestrated collisions—though the numerous earthquakes do get a little tiresome—and find them a reliable justification in themselves for the whole ethos of handheld multiplicity Figgis is dabbling in. Put another way, the movie's chief gambit encourages me to browse as much as to watch. What do you think?

NICK: I remember the in-cinema experience of watching these four frames of action spring to life was pretty thrilling, even with Saffron Burrows dampening things down with her Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows act in the northeast corner. You really did have to learn, on the fly, a new way of watching movies, and I haven't had that experience very often in a commercial venue. Beyond the composite-screen effect, video itself really felt like it was changing the artform, in ways that had nothing to do with CGI. It's interesting that this film and Bamboozled are both completely untenable without cheap, handheld cameras (Timecode for what it is, Bamboozled for what it says), and that they both seem to oppose their own renegade, power-to-the-people, video vanguardism to the sad-sack corporate buffoonery of Hollywood production offices.

Beyond Saffron's acting, which we can discuss elsewhere, I found it interesting that, along with the tonal and generic mixes you describe, Figgis also wants to explore the conjunction between the solitary figure (privileged with the first shot to go "on" and the last one to go "out") and the fractious group dynamics at Red Mullet studios. I had imagined that Timecode's structure would be all about multiplicity and sprawl, which the film-studio narrative often epitomizes. But the ad campaign, at least in the U.S., did the same thing the Burrows quadrant does, forcing you to think the structure in terms of privacy, individuality, violation, and voyeurism. Whether you watch Timecode as four intensely intimate films or one gregarious, messy, meteoric field is another of those choices that Figgis always leaves open. The film seems to swerve back and forth between its interest in widening and narrowing the canvas of the screen.

Do you tend to tilt one way or the other in the way you watch the movie? Do you think of Timecode as voyeuristic? I have a lot else I want to ask, and to answer as I sort out my response to your questions—especially about those "linking" moments and images, and about "browsing." But is "browsing" in itself a voyeuristic act in this case or an Altman-for-the-00s immersion in calico public life, where nothing much is private anymore?

TIM: I totally see voyeurism as one of the movie's main threads of thought, with all the various acts of spying we've got going on, and not just from Jeanne Tripplehorn doing her whole Harry Caul thing top left (or "northwest", to borrow your neat bit of signage). It's a relief that the different set-ups and styles of camerawork make it hard to pin Timecode down as a tendentious statement about voyeurism in any Big Brother way; I feel the characters and groupings have their own distinct forcefields which dictate the rules as much as we do, whether "we" are the viewers or our stand-ins, the camera operators. For every virtually fixed shot on Tripplehorn's face as she listens in to what indiscretions her lover may or may not be committing, there's a beady, roving bit of Altman handheld happening in the opposite corner, where I think the camera takes its cue, for better or for worse, from Julian Sands's intrusive masseur, constantly wandering behind people's backs and finding himself in the thick of the action that has nothing to do with him. At the same time, I find it hard to forget that four different cameramen shot four different films here, one of them Figgis himself, and there's enough personality in the framings and sudden bursts of motion—even a cinematographer's hand is espied. We certainly don't feel trapped in a kind of robotically controlled, CCTV, panopticon universe, a formal approach I'm certain would have stifled the movie's fun and dynamism (however well it works in a context like Marc Evans' snuff-reality horror My Little Eye).

NICK: That actually helps me a lot with the film, because I have to admit, the lack of tendentiousness made me a little leery of crediting Figgis with saying much that is interesting about voyeurism. Neither following someone around relentlessly with a camera nor seeing two threads of the same story at the same time necessarily amounts to "voyeurism," which strikes me as an incredibly hard notion to access without the privilege of montage or without, ironically, a bit more distance from the characters. Our sense of being right there with them, rather than spying on them from afar, feels much less "voyeuristic" in form than what Tripplehorn, for example, is pulling off from her limo. Though the passage when she's secretly listening in on a love-making session between two characters transpiring behind a movie screen, on which a third set of characters is screening some footage in the southwest quadrant, and wondering what happened to one off their key colleagues, I think the film capitalizes most fully on the structuring tension between the simultaneity of what we're watching and the forceful disparity of what it "means" from panel to panel. The event has important reverberations, if slightly broader ones, for the fourth panel, too.) In any event, this bravura bit of orchestration is much more interesting than, say, those four extreme close-ups you mention at around 22:00—a bit of flash without, for me, much resonance. The film works best when the four-square approach adds to or complicates the surface tensions and power games that the scenario already posits among these folks. I gather Figgis sketched the "script," such as it was, on sheets of music paper, and when the four quadrants suddenly rival each other for sheer intensity, as here, the movie gives reciprocal weight to what we're watching and how we're watching it. So much so that the "browsing" approach, which is a great word, feels newly scandalous: how dare I browse between such stark and self-abasing betrayal and the gathering storm around she who is hearing herself betrayed?

TIM: That said, we're still left with a bunch of nosy, gossipy, pathologically insecure Hollywood bottom-feeders, and we're still encouraged to flit between them and develop similarly prurient, almost ADD-afflicted habits as we leech onto the leeches. To pick up your point about video vanguardism being pitted against the dismal bottom line, I agree, but also think it's one of this movie's great virtues that it both celebrates and sends up its own radical form, even while thumbing its nose at the idiotic precepts of movie marketing. Figgis talks in the commentary about how Mía Maestro's pitch at the end is almost his own wet dream for successfully wooing the money men, and yet I find it unspeakably funny when Stellan Skarsgård cracks up under the sheer weight of film-theoretical verbiage she's spouting. That speech and scene are played on the very cusp between the earnestly self-referential and the preposterously wanky, a tidy balancing act that could tip either way at any point. I'm straying into story territory here, but I must add that I dislike the necro-voyeuristic function of Maestro and her camera later on in that scene quite intensely—the movie gets carried away with its point about the impossibility of privacy, where it might be better off reaching for the stark, from-the-gut poignancy we find in Bernard Rose's ivansxtc., say, restoring privacy to a character it wants us to see as tragic, even through the ironic means of its intimate digital gaze. So I wouldn't want to suggest Figgis is entirely in control of how his new medium can be best used. Pointing one digital camera at another isn't quite the meta-cinematic masterstroke he might like us to think. But the sheer flexibility and range of effects he devises from the grid here, and the winking deployment of these new toys it demands, were and are a pretty addictive invitation to pick them up and play. A–

NICK: Another incisive bit of championship, which for me amounts to a bit of solid defense. I agree that tone recuperates a lot of the self-reflexive fascination, because the bits when all the characters are simultaneously on their cell phones (glamorous, at the time), or when Leslie Mann gets filmed on the TV, or in the finale, I worry that Timecode has less to say or to demonstrate about meta-media than it would like to. This impression gathers force for me from the fact that Timecode feels oddly conservative about what to film: a moving track through the cubicles of Red Mullet, a depersonalized sweep over this bit of Los Angeles, glimpses at the filmmaking apparatus, some felicitous pure-sensory abstractions—I wish he'd spiked the punch a bit more beyond the four character-driven narratives. Logistically difficult, in many cases, but potentially arresting.

At the same time, I appreciate that lots of what Figgis and his team do focalize would fall well outside the possibility of almost any Hollywood narrative. What other movie would allow us to sit for so long in the thick tension of that limo ride before someone finally loses her temper? Or would have made time for the Red Mullet executives' round-robin introductions of themselves to Maestro and Nivola? Even as Timecode piles on frames of action, and induces the ADD you're talking about (I love "leeching onto the leeches"), it creates phenomenal opportunities for capturing duration on film as a dramatic and a comedic device. These quiet passages in each quadrant aren't always entrancing, and I get it that they are necessary in steering our attention to more pivotal stuff happening in the adjacent frames, but real time as "dead" time is often just as interesting in this movie, and more germane to the whole experiment, than real time as conferred upon dramatic hyperbole or the familiar crazy-quilt of Los Angeles Eating Itself (see below). And since I never got back to those "linking" moments of abrupt crossover, I'll just add that it's delicious how this structure can lend exciting, unnerving charge to the sheer fact of a character crossing into a space where she or he isn't "supposed" to be, either in the context of the physical environment or the screen as we're observing it. So, I'm not quite as sold as you, at least in execution, and I still don't think it's a patch on my beloved Russian Ark (on which I know you're a bit cooler), but this is still an invigorating exercise. B+

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