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Time Code

In another intrepid exploration of the possibilities of the silver screen, our very own movie maestro Thomas Wartenberg takes notes on an experimental new film called Time Code.

Among the issues that animated early film theorists and philosophers of film was whether film constituted an artform that rivalled the traditional ones such as theater and painting. Common to the different answers to this question was the assumption that film’s achievement of a place among the arts required its having a distinctive medium to distinguish it from its rivals. Thus, Rudolph Arnheim asserted that film’s reliance on the moving image was the key to its achieving the status of an art, so that films should reject verisimilitude as a stylistic imperative. According to Arnheim, film would only achieve artistic status once it had more fully emulated the visual structure of painting.

Against this line of reasoning stood the towering figure of André Bazin, who placed his bets on film’s photographic basis. He argued that film was uniquely positioned among the arts to present audiences with reality as it truly was. Indeed, he believed that the more fully film was able to capture reality through technical advances such as sound and color, the greater its claims to true artistry. For Bazin, realism is the path towards realizing the “myth of total cinema,” the goal of presenting a complete simulation of reality on the silver screen.

I was reminded of this early debate in the philosophy of film while viewing Mike Figgis’ challenging and provocative film, Time Code. This film presents a new style of filmmaking, one that has much in common with the realism that Bazin championed, but that takes it in directions the latter could not have imagined. This is because Figgis’ film relies on digital technologies that have only recently emerged. Through it, he is able to present viewers with a quadruplely-split screen, with each quadrant presenting a 90-minute long single take. On each of the four splitscreens, we see an element of the complex narrative that Time Code presents. Although we are initially puzzled by the relations between the events depicted on each of the four screens – two women riding in a limousine, another woman talking during a therapy session, a masseur arriving at a film production company, and a meeting taking place at that same company – as the film progresses, we become aware of the connection between the narratives presented on each of the quadrants of the screen. (There are moments when we see the same event portrayed on more than one quadrant, with each presenting a different point of view.) Although experimental films have often teased their viewers by beginning with a series of seemingly unrelated stories only to demonstrate their relation as the film progresses, this is the first time that such distinct narratives are placed before the viewer simultaneously.

The result is a cinematic experience unlike any I’ve previously had, and in ways that I would not have anticipated. For example, as I watched the film, I learned to allow the sound track to guide my eyes in focusing on the one quadrant (usually) to which the sound corresponded. (I believe that all of the sound in this film is diegetic, meaning that none of it is added after the fact.) Although the experience of having to attend to four discrete images simultaneously was initially quite confusing and tiring, I soon became used to it and to the role that Figgis had assigned the soundtrack in organizing our experience of the film. I was even able to allow my attention to wander over the other three quadrants while I paid closer attention to the events portrayed in the one privileged by the soundtrack.

The film is less compelling as a story than it is as an experiment in the possibilities for film as an artform, for the story that is told with this innovative visual style is less fresh than one would hope from the techniques used to tell it. It centers on Alex Green (Stellan Skarsgard), the head of a small Hollywood production company, and the dysfunction of both his personal and professional lives. An alcoholic and drug-abuser, Green is idolized by his associates for his abilities as a producer, though these are not in evidence during most of the film. At one point, he does save the day by muttering a difficult truth through his drug- and alcoholinduced haze, cutting through all the falsehoods uttered by those that surround him. What we witness is the disintegration of his life and the lives of those who surround him. The message – one that we have heard before in films from Billy Wilder’s devastating portrayal of Hollywood stardom in Sunset Boulevard to Robert Altman’s masterful send-up of the Hollywood film industry in The Player – is that Hollywood and corruption are synonymous.

The freshest moment in the film comes towards its end when a young avant-garde filmmaker makes a pitch to Alex and his associates and more or less mouths Figgis’ intentions in making Time Code. She asserts that montage or editing has created a false sense of reality in film, so she proposes to run four cameras simultaneously to create a film that would be told in real time without cuts. Although her invocation of Leibniz as a materialist suggests the need for some remedial help in philosophy, her presentation encapsulates Figgis’ sense of his own goal, and it refreshing to seem him maintaining his sense of irony even at this crucial moment by satirizing the pretentiousness of this project. Figgis’ claim is that digital technology has allowed for a more complete realization of Bazin’s dream of a ‘total cinema’, one that would present the world in its fullness to us. On such a view, the use of frequent editing suffers from its manipulation of the viewer by guiding her attention from one element in a scene to another. Figgis’ split-screen technique, on the contrary, is more realistic because the viewer is freer to focus on any element of the different partial stories that come before her in real time.

While it is questionable whether this innovative style of filmmaking really does encapsulate the world as it is for us, it certainly does provide a new and unusual cinematic experience, one that pushes the boundaries of traditional filmmaking. To me, it seems a significant innovation, though one whose impact on the ‘industry’ is hard to anticipate. It will be interesting to see what role Time Code plays in what might become a new, postmodern form of cinematic realism.

© Thomas E. Wartenberg 2000

Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview) and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

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