Real Time to Kill; Faking It


More fashionable than innovative, Mike Figgis’s Time Code brings the hot new technology of digital video to bear on the hippest trend in Hollywood narratives—multiple intersecting story lines à la Robert Altman (who’s been doing it intermittently for 30 years, but never more purposefully or economically than in Nashville). Figgis’s contribution to this narrative genre is to put four unedited real-time stories on screen simultaneously. The image is divided into quadrants, thus allowing viewers to switch their attention at will. Each viewer becomes an editor, charged with the task of intercutting four takes into one 93-minute cinematic experience.

Figgis used the Sony DSR-1 camera, which holds 93-minute loads, is light enough to carry for that length of time, and can be synced to other cameras, guaranteeing the simultaneity of all four takes. The film was mapped rather than scripted. The actors were given outlines for their characters and situations (their jobs, their ambitions, who they’re fucking, who they want to fuck). The map also indicated where they had to be at crucial moments, and the performers improvised accordingly. A cameraperson was assigned to each of the four story lines, and the four synchronous films were shot in their entirety many times over. With no mixing and matching allowed, the only editing Figgis did was to choose one take.

A thriller-parody about the biz, Time Code is in every sense a process movie. Its central location is a Sunset Boulevard building in which a ragtag production company is casting a straight-to-video slasher flick. The producer (Stellan Skarsgard) is estranged from his wife (Saffron Burrows) and involved with several other women, one of whom is an ambitious actress (Salma Hayek) with a jealous lesbian lover (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Guess who the villain turns out to be.

I suspect that Time Code was a lot more fun to make than it is to watch. Figgis’s working method is closer to theater or live television than to film. But while it may have produced an adrenaline rush in cast and crew, it also caused the actors to jabber away and ham it up incessantly. No one wants to be the person who drops the ball when it means that four 93-minute takes go into the trash. With too much responsibility and too little structure, the actors turn into boors.

Warhol, who made many definitive real-time, split-screen movies (the most famous being Chelsea Girls), had, among his many filmmaking talents, an eye for performers. His superstars—from the nearly silent Nico to the witty Edie Sedgwick to the motormouthed Viva—were riveting. When the camera rolled, they rose to the occasion, shaping our perception of time with their desires and fantasies. Everything Figgis tries to do in Time Code, Warhol did three decades ago, including the Hollywood parody. True, Warhol’s Auricon camera could only record 33 minutes at a time and it was too heavy to carry. Chelsea Girls, which is composed of 12 33-minute takes, may not be as structurally pure as Time Code, but the purity of real time is wasted when nothing’s happening in it.

With its richly saturated, high-contrast cinematography, Lisa Krueger’s Committed looks like a 3-D postcard, but as romantic comedy, it falls flat. Heather Graham plays a dynamo of the Downtown club scene who believes that commitment means forever. When her wimpy husband of less than two years packs up and moves to Texas, she follows him, stakes out his trailer, befriends his new sweetheart, and even enlists the help of a grizzled Mexican mystic to teach her how to cast spells.

Many jilted lovers indulge in a bit of stalking, even if it’s only phoning the beloved at inappropriate times and hanging up. But when the stalker goes to the extremes that Graham does here, it’s very creepy to watch. Committed is a less glossy version of Addicted to Love, in which Meg Ryan and Matthew Broderick got together while spying on their respective exes. Krueger is attempting to use a light touch to illuminate a difficult aspect of relationships: how to distinguish between healthy commitment and obsession. And were it not for its central performance, the film might have had a chance. But Graham is so wrapped up in her own kookiness, it’s impossible to believe she notices anyone else’s existence, let alone that she could be in love. With Graham center screen in almost every scene, Committed becomes a film about a pathologically narcissistic woman, which I don’t think is Krueger’s intent. Committing to an actor is every bit as perilous as choosing a mate.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 25, 2000

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