If it's possible to be slightly bored and avidly interested at the same time, that's how I felt through most of Mike Figgis' Time Code, which may be the most structurally daring near-mainstream film since...well, ever. Dividing the screen into quadrants, Figgis simultaneously presents four plot strands that somehow weave themselves into a single story, and although the story itself is rather familiar--a low-rent version of Robert Altman's The Player--the storytelling is wonderfully strange, characters intersecting like pieces of a 3-D jigsaw puzzle. As an homage to Figgis' experimental high jinks, I've split my review into four sections: Plot, Technique, Effect, Implications. The sections may be read in any order. Ideally, they'd be read at the same time. Plot: Most of the movie takes place in or around the production offices of Red Mullet Pictures, an independent film company based in Los Angeles. Red Mullet is headed by Alex (Stellan Skarsgard), who appears to be in the middle of a nervous breakdown. His wife (Saffron Burrows) has just left him, and not even a quickie with his mistress (Salma Hayek) can pull him out of his funk. Rose, the mistress, is an aspiring actress whose lesbian lover, Lauren (Jeanne Tripplehorn), has caught on to the affair with Alex. Early on, Lauren plants a bug in Rose's purse so she can listen in on Rose's movie audition at Red Mullet. Meanwhile, Alex's wife visits her therapist, then roams up and down Sunset Boulevard in a funk. She may be in the middle of a nervous breakdown too. That's the gist of the plot, but there are lots of subplots, or, if not subplots, then little byways and by-the-ways that give the movie an abundance of texture. Holly Hunter, Kyle MacLachlan, Laurie Metcalf, Julian Sands and Steven Weber are the "name" actors in a supporting cast that portrays the employees of Red Mullet, the people who want to work with them and--always good for a laugh--a gentle masseur (Sands) who goes around rubbing everybody the right way. Technique: Using special lightweight digital videocameras that can hold 93-minute loads, Figgis and three other camera operators shot the movie in real time as it was being improvised by the actors, who were given a map of where they needed to be when (and why) but no lines. (One camera basically follows Alex around, one basically follows Rose around, etc.) Then Figgis shot the movie 14 more times, honing the camerawork and the acting along the way, finally choosing the 15th "take" for the version that appears in theaters, now transferred to film. The four separate images play on the screen at the same time, in sync ("time code" is an electronic synchronizing system used for editing video) and without any cuts. Only the soundtrack, which fades in and out of the various quadrants, shows any obvious signs of manipulation. Effect: Figgis has referred to the movie's mode of presentation as "cinematic cubism," while many critics have reached for music metaphors, such as a Bach fugue. But I'd go with a metaphor that's slightly less elevated: spinning plates. Time Code is a stunt at heart, and half the fun is seeing whether Figgis can keep his interlocking storylines moving. Alas, he can't: During most of the movie, at least two of the quadrants seem to be marking time, and I never paid much attention to the wife. (Nor did Figgis, judging by the soundtrack.) On the other hand, when the movie's clicking on all four cylinders, it becomes hard to follow--sensory overload. Hence my overall feeling of avid interest and slight boredom. Time Code is a movie for the brain more than for the heart. You don't necessarily love it, but you respect it in the morning. (I should point out that the movie's often funny, so funny that I wished Figgis had left the melodrama behind and stuck with the Hollywood satire.)
Implications: Split screens, which Abel Gance was already using in 1927's Napoleon, aren't exactly an innovation. Nor are they restricted to art films, as a glance at Pillow Talk will confirm. But they do seem to link up with the way we live now, what with PCs and the Web and those banks of video monitors that follow us everywhere we go. Like The Blair Witch Project, Time Code is a vid-kid's dream come true; we feel like we're getting unmediated reality, albeit packaged for our viewing pleasure. (Just how much control Figgis has retained is indicated by that soundtrack, which directs our attention like a laser pen.) Will movies go this way, given the advent of digital cameras and digital projection? Maybe, maybe not. But unless there are stories to match the storytelling, it's going to seem like old wine poured into new bottles.