[box cover]


Columbia TriStar Home Video

Starring Stellan Skarsgard, Saffron Burrows, Jeanne Tripplehorn,
and Salma Hayek

Written and directed by Mike Figgis

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

A restless camera explores the cubicles and doorways of a hip Los Angeles office complex. Within it dwell several movie producers, actors, directors, executives, and technicians, with some office help and a rather useless security guard thrown in. In the course of 90 minutes, the denizens of this office space consider many different script ideas, fret about their boss's drug intake, make love during a screening, take drugs in the bathroom, and engage in lesbian sex.

The latest Robert Altman movie? You'd think — the grand old grizzly of so-called indie filmmaking does tend to repeat himself, but no, this is not a remake of The Player, or any other film from the "master" who stews in pungent Altmanure. Instead, it's the rather Altmanesque Timecode, a Mike Figgis film, and one of the few genuinely experimental cinematic works to be released by a major studio in years.

What is an experimental film? For the purposes of this review, we can say that an experimental film is a work that exists primarily to explore new or alternative means of using an established medium. For example, an experimental film may not be good in and of itself, but rather a next step in the evolution of the art form. By this definition, Timecode works marvelously. Figgis lays out his almost unique notion of telling a story with great patience, acuity, and zest, exploring his aesthetic terrain to an extreme that is almost unique in the annals of filmmaking.


But what specifically is the experiment? Figgis, using four digital video cameras, records a quartet of related groups of varying sizes, engaged in activities that interact at various times. The images captured by the four cameras are shown simultaneously to the viewer in a screen divided into quadrants. And there is actually a story here, about the end of a marriage and a life, but it is nearly buried in the business of the experiment. What eventually comes to the fore is that Alex (Stellen Skarsgard) is one of the owners of Red Mullet Productions. He is drinking, popping pills, and having an affair with an aspiring actress named Rose (Salma Hayek). As the film opens, Alex's wife Emma (Saffron Burrows) is talking to her psychiatrist (Glenne Headly) about her life and relationship. As she later walks down the street to the Red Mullet offices, simultaneously Lauren (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a wealthy executive of some kind, is driving her lover, the same Rose, to an audition at Red Mullet. Also converging at the offices are Q (Julian Sands), a masseuse, and a hot young filmmaker who is going to pitch to the company a film not unlike Timecode itself.

The key to the experiment is counterpoint. What Figgis had to coordinate in Timecode was nothing less than four little worlds converging. The film is at its most powerful when the cameras manage to simultaneously unite, almost magically, on the same thing, theme, or emotion. For example, at about 23 minutes in, the cameras manage to focus on the eyes of four of the women involved in the complicated tangents of the plot. Later, Figgis manages to contrive a counterpoint involving everyone who could be affected by a clandestine and fugitive act of lovemaking, and near the end has the two major couples of the talking to each other on cell phones in the midst of a tragedy.

Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) and his four cameras and large cast of improvising actors execute this mad experiment brilliantly. Buried in the four screens are some rather funny tricks (a microphone that Lauren plants on Rose ends up with someone else; Q the masseuse ends up helping Rose audition for a part) and a very sad and poignant story. One just wishes that the actual text of the film were a lot sharper and even funnier. It's easy to take potshots at the excesses of Hollywood, and Figgis avails himself of that temptation. Nevertheless, the actors — who bring different styles to the story — are game, and some perform brilliantly. Especially noteworthy is Skarsgard, without question currently one of the greatest actors in world cinema today, as the doomed producer.

Flawed as the basic text may be, Timecode clearly is a film that benefits from continual viewings, given that there are four little movies going on all at the same time, and one's attention is always divided times four. With the DVD release, Columbia TriStar has made it easy to lose oneself in the worlds that Figgis has created. Offered here are two versions of the film — what is called "version 15," which was the theatrical version, and "version 1," an unrated rendition of the movie that was something of a run-through. If you like Timecode, it's fascinating to see the changes between the two different occasions (and Figgis says on one of the commentaries that two other versions were equally as interesting and different). Timecode comes in a full-frame presentation that is very sharp in this transfer, despite the fact that the images occupy only a fourth of the frame each. The audio, on the other hand, isn't as rich or as crisp, or even at times audible, as it could be. Figgis does a lot to manipulate the sound on the film — when he turns up the volume on one of the four quadrants, that's where you are suppose to look and listen. At the same time, portions of the score by Figgis and Anthony Marelli play in the background. It's a rich visual and audio experience, but again, the audio could be cleaner.

The disc also enhances multiple viewings, and thankfully Figgis was involved in the DVD production. The director offers two separate commentaries, one for each version (though he is "interviewed" by a fannish fellow who has a remarkable knack for saying just the wrong thing; fortunately Figgis doesn't suffer him gladly and almost always interrupts him). Best of all is a feature called the "audio mix option for version 15." With this feature, the viewer can highlight any quadrant, overriding Figgis's manipulation of the audio, and listen in. If one wishes, one can listen to the film four times in a row, concentrating on one quadrant at a time. Figgis also provides a video diary of the making of the film, a short work that comes across as a less humorous version of the diary that P. T. Anderson did for Magnolia. Here, the viewer can also highlight a feature that provides on-screen access to video diary segments as the movie is playing. Other features include the very effective theatrical trailer, some production notes, DVD-ROM options (Figgis's unique "shooting score ," a look inside the Red Mullet offices, and a link to the official website), and talent files on Figgis and six of the actors.

— D. K. Holm

  • Color
  • Full frame (1.33:1)
  • Single-sided, dual-layered disc (SS-DL)
  • Dolby Digital English 5.1, English 2.0 Surround
  • Close captioned
  • Version 15, the release version
  • Version 1, the first taping of the film
  • Director's commentary over version 15
  • Director's commentary over version 1
  • Director's filmmaking diary, in eight chapters
  • Audio mix option for version 15
  • Version 15 with on-screen access to video diary segments
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Production notes
  • DVD-ROM options: director's "shooting score," a look inside the Red Mullet offices, and a link to the official website
  • Talent files on Figgis and six of the actors
  • Keep-case

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