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'Time Code' finds suitable home on DVD

Perhaps no theatrically released movie has ever been better suited to the digital home video format of DVD. "Time Code" (Columbia TriStar, $24.95), which features four movies running simultaneously in each corner of the screen for more than 90 minutes, is in fact better suited to the squarish TV screen than the rectangular-shaped movie theater screens where it had to be cropped vertically. The DVD format also allows the viewer to use the remote control to easily select the audio from any of the four movies. Otherwise, director Figgis ("Leaving Las Vegas") has mixed the soundtrack so that all four soundtracks play simultaneously as he increases the volume on one or another at various times to emphasize the one he feels has the most important audio at that particular moment. Figgis shot all four movies, with interwoven plots, at the exact same time and without interruption -- no edits.

As the story involving lesbian lovers and the casting for a movie evolves, with cameras following various characters, the cameras sometimes come together when the actors cross paths. That makes for interesting synchronicity, as Figgis calls it in his audio commentaries, during which two cameras are showing the same actress from two different angles in two different quadrants of the screen. All of this is not nearly as confusing and hard to follow as it sounds. In fact, although it is quite literally style over substance, the technique is so intriguing that you find yourself even more engaged than usual.

Multi-tasking has now invaded our movie viewing. Because each of the four films was shot in a single take, each take represented an entire movie. Figgis shot the movie an incredible 15 times, meaning he actually has 60 feature-length movies. The very first take is also included on the DVD, and offers a fascinating look at how very different the improvisational acting was, and how much planning was involved in timing the various elements. For instance, a scene in the final movie shows a limousine pulling up outside casting office in Hollywood. One camera is inside the limo where the two lesbian lovers (Jeanne Tripplehorn and Salma Hayek) are having a fight, while the other is following a security guard outside the office to open the door of the limo. Because the camera operators were not in synch the first time, the second camera never catches the limo pulling up. A sex scene between a would-be actress (Hayek) and an alcoholic ad man (Stellan Skarsgard) is very differently staged the first time than the last.

By the 15th take, several sequences were choreographed to happen simultaneously, including three staged earthquake tremors and extreme close-ups of a pair of someone's eyes in each of the four cameras simultaneously in different locations. Often, there is little going on in at least one quadrant of the screen. But when the action in one relates directly to the action in another, it is mesmerizing.

Take for example when Tripplehorn's character is sitting in the limo and reacting to the sounds of Hayek through a pager she has secretly rigged to be a transmitter. First we see her giggling in one screen as we see Hayek using the bathroom in another screen, and then we see Tripplehorn become outraged as she listens to Hayek's character have spontaneous sex behind a movie screen in the casting office.

Although the primary actors were the same in each take, several minor actors changed due to scheduling conflicts. Laurie Metcalf, who played the role of a psychiatrist in most of the takes, had to go shoot her TV series during the 15th take; Glenne Headley takes her place. Holly Hunter appears in a creative meeting in the casting office in the final version, but not the first version.

There is a substantial amount of repeated information between the audio commentaries on the two versions of the film and behind-the-scenes featurettes, but there are still plenty of fascinating stories from Figgis about the process of shooting such an experimental film. Although the story would not stand up without the technology, the film has to be considered a success, and even more so on DVD.

Copyright 2000, Scott Hettrick.