Timecode (Showbiz satire, color, R, 1:37)
By Dennis Harvey
SAN FRANCISCO (Variety) - He's tried and tried again, but
this time Mike Figgis has finally done it: The form is the
content in "Timecode," a fascinating, sometimes exhilarating,
experiment in which four continuous shots -- that's four
separate feature-length takes -- occupy the screen throughout,
as an ensemble cast's dialogue-improvised multiple storylines
overlap and crisscross.
Putting digital video technology at last to a (relatively)
mainstream commercial use that's innovative technically and
artistically, pic is sure to create considerable buzz,
particularly within the industry itself. Sophisticated audiences
are likely to respond well to this one-of-a-kind (so far)
exercise. Whether it'll survive in the marketplace long enough
for them to get the chance is another question entirely.
Reasonably enough, given both the possibilities and
hair-raising logistical demands inherent in this project, Figgis
has chosen to set his creative bungee-jump smack in downtown
L.A. There, he tracks 20-odd primary characters, all of whom
have some direct or indirect relation to the film industry.
Pic's beehive is the Sunset Boulevard HQ for Red Mullet
Inc., a rising production company co-founded by Alex Green
(Stellan Skarsgard), who as matters commence is very, very late
in arriving at the office. Things have gotten bad for him
lately: A crumbling marriage to Emma (Saffron Burrows, first
seen relating the gory details to her shrink) has fostered
out-of-control drinking and other reckless behavior.
But collective sympathy is running thin today. Main concern
is the imminent shoot of auteur Lester Moore's (Richard Edson)
new screen epic and the helmer is wrapping auditions for the
title role, with starlet Cherine (Leslie Mann) last in line.
Meanwhile, wealthy Lauren Hathaway (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is
keeping a keen eye on her untrustworthy young lover, Rose (Salma
Hayek), an aspiring thesp who claims she's got an appointment
with Lester. She doesn't -- but she'll do anything to get one,
and that urgency has already led to an affair-in-progress with
Alex. Unbeknownst to Rose, suspicious Lauren has planted an
audio bug. Through it, she soon overhears her girlfriend
shamelessly shag Alex just behind a screening-room scrim where
execs have gathered to view their prospective topliners.
That's hardly the only predatory sexual liaison revealed
here, though not all are deployed to similar slapstick-comic
effect. Troubled Emma wanders the afternoon streets, stumbling
into more than one old flame. When Alex proves no help, Rose
continues her desperate audition-stalking in the lobby, while
Lauren remains paralyzed with shock outside.
Upstairs, the execs await a "brilliant" European talent
who's deigned to give them a feature pitch. When she finally
shows up, squired by her agent (Kyle MacLachlan), avant-garde
prima donna Ana Pauls (Mia Maestro) flabbergasts all by doing a
sort of semiotic performance-art piece, complete with a
boyfriend's (Alessandro Nivola) rapping hip-hop accompaniment.
Adding to the sense of imminent chaos are several
increasingly severe seismic tremors. A gun provides narrative
climax. Then four cell phones allow a final grace-chord of mixed
irony, tenderness, panic and relief.
Sans the absorbing novelty of its presentation, "Timecode"
might well look like the emperor's new (or old) clothes.
Yet if the satire feels familiar, and the dramatics often
contrived, there's rarely a moment here when something funny,
intense or cleverly interconnected doesn't keep one's synapses
firing on overdrive. Performances are all over the map, making
for a delectable goulash of emotional tenors and acting styles.
Tripplehorn arguably walks off with tour-de-force honors
here, as eavesdropping Lauren mutely reacts to Rose's brazen
betrayal -- going from bewilderment to disbelief, horror,
chain-smoking fury and beyond, all with a subtly comic panache.
Burrows, another thesp who's on camera nearly all the time, is
burdened with pic's most humorless, angst-ridden role, to less
rewarding effect. Skarsgard carries the other major histrionic
load, vividly limning an exec whose psychological fault lines
have chosen today to pull their own 8.0.
Julian Sands provides hilarious running distraction as a New
Age masseuse who lets nothing get in the way of his promotional
gratis services. Though seldom foregrounded, Steven Weber contribute particularly deadpan biz-ness amongst
the office's high-end staff. Danny Huston also stands out as a
perennially sunglassed, coked-up security guard.
In a sense, the full "Timecode" experience won't be
available until its DVD release, when viewers will be able to
focus on one audio track throughout, or create their own,
Dialogue was entirely improvised by the cast within a
time-specific story outline designed to have them hit various
dramatic marks (particularly the earthquakes) in synch. Pic was
shot over two weeks' time in 15 90-minute takes -- release
version consisting of the last takes from each of the four
D.p. quartet's handheld work, live sound recording and other
tech factors perfectly exploit the equation's precarious
immediacy. Figgis, working with Anthony Marinelli, contributes
another ambient-jazz score; other music emphasized includes
Mahler's Symphony No. 5, and an Everything But the Girl tune
("Single") that comments rather too explicitly on the action.
All in all, "Timecode" represents a real triumph for
Figgis. It's anyone's guess whether "Timecode" signals a new
direction for him -- and commercial cinema in general -- or will
prove a one-off trick, neat but unworthy of further exploration.
For the record: Though the device has been deployed by
experimental and mainstream filmmakers alike for decades, only
two prior commercial features come to mind as having used
parallel imagery throughout: Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey's 1966
breakout classic "The Chelsea Girls" (whose reels could be
dual-projected in any order) and MGM's obscure '73 flop
psycho-chiller "Wicked, Wicked" (shot in "DuoVision").
"Timecode's" sole, fleeting unified images occur during the
striking opening-credits seg, designed by mOcean.
Evan Watz .............. Xander Berkeley
Onyx Richardson ........ Golden Brooks
Emma ................... Saffron Burrows
Victoria Cohen ......... Viveka Davis
Lester Moore ........... Richard Edson
Sikh Nurse ............. Aimee Graham
Rose ................... Salma Hayek
Auditioning Actor ...... Andrew Heckler
Executive .............. Holly Hunter
Randy .................. Danny Huston
Auditioning Actor ...... Daphna Kastner
Drug House Owner ....... Patrick Kearney
Penny .................. Elizabeth Low
Bunny Drysdale ......... Kyle MacLachlan
Ana Pauls .............. Mia Maestro
Cherine ................ Leslie Mann
Connie Ling ............ Suzy Nakamura
Joey Z ................. Alessandro Nivola
Lester's Assistant ..... Zuleikha Robinson
Quentin ................ Julian Sands
Alex Green ............. Stellan Skarsgard
Lauren Hathaway ........ Jeanne Tripplehorn
Darren Fetzer .......... Steven Weber
A Screen Gems release of a Red Mullet production. Produced
by Mike Figgis, Annie Stewart. Co-producer, Dustin Bernard.
Directed by Mike Figgis. Story by Figgis. Camera (color, HDD
video-to-35mm), James Wharton O'Keefe, Tony Cucchiari, Figgis,
Patrick Alexander Stewart; music, Figgis, Anthony Marinelli;
music supervisor, Louise Hammar; production designer, Charlotte
Malmlof; set director, Jennifer Gentile; costumes, Donna Casey;
sound, Robert Janiger; sound editor, Patrick Dodd; assistant
directors, Gary Scott Marcus, Jonathan M. Watson, Greg Zekowski,
Philippe Dupont; opening/end title design, mOcean; casting,
Amanda Mackey Johnson, Cathy Sandrich. Reviewed at the Van Ness
1000, San Francisco, April 18, 2000.