Story in Timecode

Photo © 2000 Screen Gems/Red Mullet Productions
TIM: Here we hit a rough patch. What is the story in Timecode? Is it four stories? Twelve? The movie's experimental form throws us a massive challenge to stay on track with what's happening, and the usual movie rules for whether enough is happening get chucked out of the window. Above this, you've mentioned the willpower it takes to sit through much of Quartier Burrows, who on most viewings I've tended to allow just to sit there on Glenne Headly's couch, reassured that she'll still be there mumbling away in 20 minutes time and not much will have changed. This time, though, I do admit to a bit more curiosity about what's going on between her and Leslie Mann in the last reel or so—a development that's instinctively difficult to tune into, because it coincides with such grabbily amusing southwest ensemble work (Holly!) and high drama between our northwest lovebirds. Figgis admits that he faced a nasty editing compromise at this very moment and elected to drop most of the sound, rather than privileging one sector at the expense of major goings-on in at least two of the other three. So I grabbed the DVD remote and took the plunge... and can now exclusively reveal that Leslie and Saffron are ex-buddies who fell out when Leslie's boyfriend proposed a threesome, one it looks like they'd both be enjoying a lot more if he wasn't involved. On balance, I wasn't missing that much.

The way I see it, there's a solid centre here with Skarsgård and Tripplehorn as its antagonist-rivals, one engaged in a saucy and plausible extra-curricular fling with Salma Hayek, the other, for reasons never clear to me from the available evidence, hopelessly in LOVE with Salma Hayek. More on that, perhaps, in the acting/not acting/inability to act column. Around this triangular core, various satellite subplots float around, mostly to do with comings and goings at the Red Mullet production office, Skarsgård's early-in-the-day booze habit, auditions for their next movie, a pitch for the one after that, and so on. Burrows visits and ends her pained relationship with Skarsgård, then goes browsing in a bookshop, and meets Mann while crying in the ladies' room. You've already talked about the importance of dead time in the movie, so that our attentions aren't equally pulled in all four directions the whole time. But I wonder if you think Figgis gets the balance right? There's an awful lot of very noodly, inconsequential business to wade through or tune out, not just northeast but southwest, where your pal Danny Huston often takes residence as an irrelevant security guard, and the almost equally forgettable Richard Edson marches about in the role of a geeky, baseball-capped director called Lester Moore. These stalling-for-time interludes actively risk being quite annoying. Are you annoyed? Are you ever bored? And how far do you think the prickly thrust of the Jeanne-Salma-Stellan infidelity plot compensates?

NICK: Here's me, grabbing at something before it gets chucked out the window. I have to say, I do think that not enough happens in the story of Timecode. The audio-visual and structural stimulation of our attentions in so many directions has precious little equivalent in the narrative line(s). The Saffy stuff is a weird combo of swampy and non-existent. Paying attention to it—which I agree was much more tempting this time, given my renewed interest in Leslie Mann—still felt like wading hip-deep through a puddle. The adulterous triangle works up some charge for reasons we're talking about elsewhere. But as a story? Nyeh.... There's good stuff happening in the Red Mullet offices, but that, for me, largely derives from savvy improv and engaging messiness.

I grant that the film's energies and ambitions are largely directed elsewhere. And it really pops when a real Screenwriting Moment arrives: Tripplehorn letting the air out of that tire, with no explanation yet in place. The tension you've evoked around the room as Maestro gives her crazy stoopid-heady pitch. Xander and Stellan rolling on the floor: where is this going? There's a way in which those abrupt cross-overs from one thread to the next feel like story points, and exciting ones, in a way they otherwise wouldn't. But they're all so fleeting! What do you think is the fair standard to apply in this case? Titanic still gets heaps of flack for losing any storytelling depth or ambition amid all its technical and spectacular feats, but I think Titanic gets something out of being so dimestore. Is Timecode getting anything out of being so narratively clichéd and sparse?

TIM: I do think it's a constriction partly inherent in the format—something meant to be digested in this channel-hopping manner is maybe destined to fail in socking over huge narrative satisfaction, and more likely to deliver on a bite-sized level. That sure does sound like a cop-out, though, and I do agree that the clever story points you list generally occur in fairly banal surroundings. Still, I'm maybe feeling a little more lenient than you on the love triangle, which may not be reinventing the wheel, but does prove a pretty durable standby when you can persuade at least two of the vertices to act the hell out of it. (A weirdly similar premise, complete with a gorgeous, auditioning actress and her jilted lover's paranoid surveillance tactics, provides the whole central motor for Almodovar's Broken Embraces.)

To defend it further, Skarsgård's two-timing (since it's clear he's already seeing Salma, and Saffy hasn't dumped him yet) fits pretty handily, don't you think, within the film's whole framework of one-in, one-out encounters? The grasp of his overlapping dalliances feels more tangible than in a non-splitscreen movie because of the unusual physical presence of all three people on screen even at the moments of greatest intimacy—we get to see the oblivious third wheel, too, without the crude cutaway another movie would have to resort to. So even when his cupboard of narrative content looks pretty bare, Figgis is using technology to recast the clichés, and in that sense I would say the stock plot he's chosen might be viewed as a deliberate test of his own resources. I'd like more story, yes, but the danger of too much going on might almost be worse, and the unoriginality of what we get does at least leave room for this rubbing up between innovation and formula. Something old and something new, if you like.

NICK: I concur that watching all four parties on screen at once, the scorners and the scorned, lends kick to an adultery scenario that's otherwise a little bald, but that still feels like a structural felicity more than a credit to the story itself. Though I realize you take the point a bit further: the story has to retract from a certain density of detail or originality to function at all within this format. And tying this to your points in our Structure chat, the adultery premise serves well as a potent but swiftly recognizable device, and it has the additional merit of giving narrative purpose to the "surveillance" conceit that helps glue the movie together, formally as well as thematically.

I hope it's not too curmudgeonly to say, but I still think the dangerous liaisons could have more depth, or snakier ramifications on other characters and plotlines, beyond the tabloid headline "Jealous Lover Shoots Rival." And it feels symptomatic that we're focalizing this element of the "story" so heavily, because while the onscreen abundance of people and tones accomplishes a lot for Timecode in other ways, it's startling how many of them are under-exploited for story potential, or else seem totally gratuitous. Saffron and Julian are the easy targets, but what about the whole orbiting ring of assistants, receptionists, and nurses, who show up enough that Figgis seems tempted to do something with them, but ultimately doesn't? Without demanding full-on Gosford Parkery, I'd have loved one quadrant to devote itself at least partially to what these supernumeraries are getting up to or talking about in the supply room or around the Xerox. The Mann/Burrows backstory barely makes an impression, especially since the movie doesn't try to do much with it visually or narratively. Skarsgård's addiction plot feels like minor, minor rehashing of Leaving Las Vegas. Some of the audition stuff is clever, but it doesn't come to much, and it pushes the utter subhumanity of the film being made just a bit hard.

The most interesting thing that happens storywise for me in this movie is the evolving portrait of what Life on the D-List actually looks like for Hayek and Mann, who dream of Kathy Griffin's level of celebrity. I like how they wind up occupying the liminal space of knowing the execs, the artists, the staff, and each other. It's an interestingly purgatorial existence, despite/because of how it never comes to much narratively. I again seem to tilt toward relishing the non-events over the events, but this stratum of the story is compelling enough to float the rest of it up to a C–.

TIM: That's a totally fair point about the ensemble of production staff, receptionists, flitters and hangers-on, who never behave as if they could really impact on anything the movie is building to. In one sense I get that a level of desultoriness is the film's stock-in-trade, since it certainly wants to present all this faffing and worry over some gutter-level celluloid travesty as an exercise in pure futility. On the other hand it risks being unpleasantly misanthropic in committing itself to this so unwaveringly—more Prêt-à-Porter than Nashville, let's say. I do wish even one of these minor characters made a break for it or rubbed against the grain of the collective mentality, but Figgis even has them doing a terrified sheep-huddle in the closing minutes: funny, but a clear sign he regards them as basically extras.

Your notion of the Red Mullet office as a kind of purgatory is just right, and fits with the above, but if putting in the hours with its inhabitants means waiting for not much to happen, there's one respect in which the screenplay makes it worthwhile. It's cheating a bit, but we've not set aside any space to talk about the dialogue, which emerged through improvisation so much in tandem with the "story" that I'm inclined to bracket the two together. To Tripplehorn's deflating of the car tyre I would add her sudden apoplectic name-calling when Hayek's with her in the limo, which also provides one of the best sound cuts in the film (at least as it exists in the threatrical and DVD mix). The various executive meetings, generally spent waiting for Stellan to arrive, throw up all sorts of choice non-sequiturs, like Suzy Nakamura explaining that no one in test screenings finds their horror film scary, "but it's playing scary so that's OK." One more line I'd add which resonates hugely at the end is Stellan's weary, almost Faustian offer to Mía Maestro, "We'll do your crap, then you'll do our crap"—one of the most grimly incisive epitaphs on a certain film-biz philosophy I can think of. So we're more or less in line about the missed narrative opportunities here, but if I'm allowed to consider the screenplay more broadly I can just about stretch to a C+.

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