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Cinema Seconds

A movie is a movie is a movie -- except when it's an experiment



*Time Code (R)
Screen Gems

Do you read lots of movie reviews? Can you stomach John Waters, quote Federico Fellini, explain Akira Kurosawa? Answering yes to just two of these questions may qualify you as a film buff, and thereby render you eligible to see Mike Figgis' Time Code, a really smart movie about making movies. (Others may also be eligible but will have to check their Hollywood expectations at the door.)

In this experimental film, director Figgis has created an occasionally unintelligible but nevertheless fascinating experience that really messes with conventional filmmaking and viewing. To begin with, he has filmed the entire movie in real time -- no cuts, no edits -- and with handheld digital cameras. Considering that one of the unique characteristics of film is that you can cut and edit to your heart's content, choosing to not avail yourself of this ability is like deciding to drive without steering.

Additionally, Figgis has split the screen into four quadrants, and on each quadrant he tells a different part of four interlocking stories being improvised by the actors. In other words, you're watching four different movies simultaneously, each shot in real time with a handheld digital camera. Any one of these elements used alone would constitute a novel approach to moviemaking -- all of them together is like watching Houdini trying to get out of a locked box, while handcuffed, while wrapped in a burlap bag, while underwater -- extremely cool but almost insane overkill.

There is nominally a story line to Time Code but the movie is, on every level, about making movies. We follow the fate of a film producer (Stellan Skarsgard) who is having an affair with an actress (Salma Hayek), whose lesbian lover (Jeanne Tripplehorn) suspects and bugs her cell phone. There are wonderful appearances by Holly Hunter as a stressed-out producer, and Julian Sands as a masseur who massages people's auras in the middle of meetings. Everyone is weird, self-obsessed, doing coke and carrying a cell phone.

One of the most brilliant sequences in the film is when the producers hear a pitch from an avant-garde film-maker who insists, in the most high-falutin terms that "montage has created a fake reality." As antidote, she suggests a film where the footage is shot in real time, with handheld digital cameras, and the screen is divided into four quadrants. The producer shoots the idea down as highbrow crap.

As happens in the chemistry lab or space station, probably only 10 percent of experiments work. The same ratio holds true for making art. Time Code is one of the lucky ones: it successfully turns filmmaking and film watching on its head for 93 minutes. By demanding your attention in several places at once, by forcing you to choose which story to watch and which to ignore (and thinking, mid-movie, "I'm going to have to rent this to get all the stories"), by having the actors improvise on a theme rather than follow a full script, by riffing on the pretentiousness of even wanting to create such a movie, Figgis creates a wonderfully self-referential spiral that draws you deeper with every frame.

If you like your movies straight up, stay away from Kimball's this week. If, however, you're willing to go along on the journey to examine lots of different film conventions, tax your retinas and give it a go. Now that the experiment has been done there's no need to do it again, so you might as well go along for the exhilarating ride.

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