Time Code: The Mediocre Mike Figgis’ Latest

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.



The Idiots
Directed by Lars Von
Trier



The death of
film equals the decay of cinema–or its renewal? Though my generally skeptical
and downbeat prognostications on this subject are a matter of record, I remain
open to any emerging proof that we may be entering a bold new cinematic age.
Which is to say that I don’t think the latest two examples of digital cinema,
Mike Figgis’ Time Code and Lars von Trier’s The Idiots,
are necessarily silly and inane because of the technology they involve. It could
just be that they come from silly, inane filmmakers. Yet the more realistic
possibility, I’m afraid, is that there’s some truth on both sides
of the equation: at this early point in the conversion to digital, the technology
tends to attract that kind of filmmaker–and then inspires them to
new depths of silly inanity.


To give credit
where a modicum is due, Time Code is by far the more esthetically ambitious
and interesting of these two movies. Figgis understands that moviemaking is
on the verge of tremendous changes with implications on every level of the creative
and viewing processes. Phrased as an attempt to explore some of the new realities,
Time Code may amount to little more than a stunt, but it’s at least
a purposeful, forward-looking stunt.


Watching the
movie, what you see is a screen divided into quadrants, each containing an image
that appears to have been shot simultaneously with the others. The four stories,
all transpiring on an afternoon in Hollywood, occasionally intersect with each
other, but mostly remain separate. Particularly striking for technically attuned
viewers is that all four cameras seem to run throughout the movie without a
single cut (something that’s easily accomplished with video but impossible
in film, where reels must be changed every 10 or so minutes). The movie’s
"editing," then, is accomplished by the viewer’s eye as it roves
among the images. That process is determined both by the dramatic interest that
each frame offers at a given moment, and by Figgis’ manipulation of the
sound, which alternates among the stories and often overlaps two or more.


To give an
idea of the intertwining narratives’ content: When the picture opens, its
northeast quadrant shows a woman (Saffron Burrows) talking to a psychiatrist
(Glenne Headly) about her husband. The northwest pane observes two women (Salma
Hayek, Jeanne Tripplehorn) as they leave a residence, get in a limousine and
head downtown, occasionally snorting coke, making out and arguing along the
way. The two southerly images, meanwhile, follow the action in and around the
ground floor of a building on Sunset Blvd., where, among various comings and
goings, a third-rate film director (Richard Edson) is attempting to cast a movie,
and a philandering studio head (Stellan Skarsgard) tries to balance his erotic
impulses and the demands of his busy office.


A title at
the movie’s end reveals that the satiric comedy-melodrama we’ve just
witnessed wasn’t scripted. Rather, it was improvised within a predetermined
structure, the basic story idea having been concocted by Figgis. From a purely
technical standpoint, Time Code’s creative gamble is undeniably
fascinating–and impressive. The occasional improvised movie that comes
along (e.g., Blue in the Face) generally looks like what it is; the acting’s
patchy and erratic. Time Code, on the other hand, seems like it might
have been scripted; the story and the performances flow much as they do in "normal"
movies. Even granting that Figgis shot the movie more than a dozen times on
consecutive days, finally choosing the last take for the end result, the work
of the actors and the production’s intricate logistical choreography are
remarkable.


But, ultimately,
so what? Intricate logistical choreography and actors who can improvise in character
for 90 minutes have nothing essential to do with art. In fact, the nature of
Time Code’s "achievements" is sadly more akin to a tap-dancing
horse or a guy who can keep 15 plates spinning at once than it is to any great
film you might care to name. Is such elaborate but empty trickery the only promise
the movies’ new era holds?


Perhaps not.
The problem with Time Code is that all its technical wizardry is deployed
to convey little of real interest. The movie’s characters are stock figures,
its action a series of cliches. Phony showbiz types blabbing about the biz,
screwing, doing drugs and acting vacuous–rather than being new, or in any
way compelling, what we have here is a load of tired old dreck tricked out in
a flashy package. But you can’t really blame the medium for that, since
it’s so obviously in line with the general run of Figgis’ work.


He is, after
all, a moviemaker whose pretensions are matched only by his consistent banality.
He fancies himself a musical as well as a cinematic whiz, so that when Time
Code
opens, you groan to hear the first noodling notes of yet another deeply
vapid Figgis jazz score (which, in this brazenly postmodern context, feels ridiculously
anachronistic). The high point of his career to date, the vastly overrated Leaving
Las Vegas
, provides a compellingly gritty, atmospheric surface to a story
that might have been written by computer. His nadir, the risibly self-important
Loss of Sexual Innocence, manages to be pornographic and tedious at once.


This much
can be said for Time Code: its hectic, four-things-happening-at-once
flux does capture something of the current moment’s media zeitgeist, with
its atomized attention spans and vaunting of copious information over art’s
careful discrimination. Yet this accomplishment, if you want to call it that,
is ambiguous at best, since it uncritically furthers the very qualities that
a better film would bracket and question. And by implication–one which
becomes explicit in the movie’s press notes–it likewise furthers the
preposterous myths that this new technology is leading us to more "truthful"
and "democratic" moviemaking.


You keep a
camera focused on an actor for 90 minutes without a cut and that somehow makes
the movie more truthful? On the contrary, this is simply the pernicious lie
that perennially attaches itself to naturalism. It can’t be said often
enough: actors and their emoting may be the sine qua non of tv soap operas,
but they’re the least important elements of true cinema, the real value
(and truth) of which depends primarily on ideas, writing and directorial
vision.


As for the
"democratizing" canard, that’s more laughable still. First off,
there’s nothing democratic about Time Code itself. Its essential
content and final shape were controlled entirely by Figgis, an established moviemaker
working under the auspices of a major Hollywood studio, Sony Pictures. Second,
even if digital cameras eventually allow every democratic Joe to make his own
movie, where can this lead except to a flood of undifferentiated mediocrity?
Art, by its nature, has little truck with tepid egalitarianism. We all crave
to bow under the tyrannical yoke of a Shakespeare, a Mahler, a whip-cracking
Fellini.


Time Code
and its publicity invoke all manner of storied precedents, from Eisenstein to
Rope to Cassavetes. But the figure who looms most noticeably over Figgis’
enterprise is Robert Altman. Much like P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia,
Time Code would like to be taken as a latter-day Nashville or
Short Cuts, films dense with incident, idiosyncrasy and cool irony.


How did Altman
become the patron saint and template-giver for vacuous posers like Anderson
and Figgis? The answer, I think, begins with the fact that he’s the director
of the American cinema’s modernist renaissance most associated with television,
which gave him formal tropes that he ingeniously adapted to movies. Yet the
sensibility underneath his televisual style always remained cussedly literary.
Remove the foundations of content, feeling and analysis from his work and you
get what Figgis and Anderson give us: movies that are essentially pretentious
tv soaps, woozy with self-infatuation and the misguided sense that style is
all.


It can be argued
that television (including most digital movies) actively corrodes the content
and substantial thought that we traditionally associate not only with cinema
but also with theater and fiction. If so, Figgis appears not to have the first
inkling of it. Lars von Trier does. His work consciously reflects–though
it offers little to remedy–the European art cinema’s crisis of meaning.


His last movie,
the fascinating and deservedly acclaimed Breaking the Waves, adverted
to Europe’s great cornerstone of meaning: Christianity. Yet the film wasn’t
a wrestling-with-the-rigors-of-faith such as you would get in Bergman or von
Trier’s great Danish antecedent, Dreyer; it was more like an airy wish
that such wrestling were still possible, here in the postmodern swamp of Whatever.
And if the final certainties of faith evaporate, what’s left? Only the
acrid comedy of utter fraudulence, The Idiots seems to answer. Problem
is, von Trier’s movie–like Figgis’–ends up merely aping
and augmenting the fraudulence it should blast.


The Idiots
is the latest movie released under the banner of Dogma 95, a tongue-in-cheek
manifesto cum publicity stunt that got accepted as real by the cinema world’s
equivalent of fairground rubes. (In a mark of our film culture’s decline,
the Film Society of Lincoln Center even devoted a symposium to this nonidea.)
Though Dogma can’t and shouldn’t be taken seriously, its emphasis
on style and shooting methods inadvertently betrays what it really is at its
heart: a gnawing dearth of ideas, of solid subjects and authorial vision.


Content-wise,
every Dogma film so far is the same bundle of cliches: inanely caricatured dysfunctional
families, sluts and morons. The latter provide the narrative keystone of The
Idiots
, in which a bunch of very boring middle-class Danes form a de facto
commune attempt to discover their "inner idiots" by acting with programmatic
foolishness, even when their displays mock real-life retarded people. Some may
find these parts of the movie offensive. I didn’t. I found the whole thing
so tedious that it was only through heroic effort that I managed to stay awake
during the screening.


In effect,
von Trier’s video-shot jape is a movie by, about and for idiots: if you
waste your money on it, you’re one too. Intended or not, its one deep subject
is the state of auteur cinema in Europe. It wouldn’t have been made, with
funding sources from all over the Continent, if von Trier weren’t a famous
auteur. Take away everything interesting and worthwhile about The Idiots–i.e.,
nothing–and that’s what you have left: von Trier’s fame, the
overblown reputation of a moviemaker trying to eke laughs out of the fact that
he has nothing to believe in.


How much does
tv have to do with this willing surrender of seriousness and significance? Is
"digital cinema" an oxymoron? Stay tuned.


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