On Sunday the IFFR offered a chance to revisit a classic of digital filmmaking with Mike Figgis' 'Time Code' (2000). A decade later, its formal innovation is still inspiring, and its Hollywood satire more entertaining than you'd expect from such a radical experiment. But mostly, it remains an interesting cinematic experience, challenging notions of authorship and viewership.
In 1999, Dogme 95 had already experimented with the new DV format and its guerilla filmmaking opportunities. But Figgis created a different set of rules: an entire film in split screen, divided in quarters, and shot in one take, resulting in four simultaneous films.
Set in Hollywood, the film(s) loosely follow(s) a group of people in the film industry, all connected somehow to a casting session at production company Red Mullet (which, self-referentially, is the name of Figgis' own company). It was shot in fifteen days, which in this case means the entire film was shot fifteen times - rehearsing and shooting at the same time and getting the timing of four simultaneous storylines right.
This split screen setup means the sound plays an important role in guiding the viewer. While Figgis mixed the sound live on a number of occasions, the story is composed to concentrate mostly on one quadrant at a time. Composed, in this context, should be taken literally: Figgis, who is also a musician, wrote the film on music paper.
The idea of 'Time Code' as a composition provides the clue to the film's central innovation, which was not to do it in real time but to add a spatial dimension to an essentially temporal medium. Even though the sound guides our attention, the eye is free to wander around the four different screens - to wonder what that person is doing in location B while this person is talking in location A.
In theoretical terms, 'Time Code' poses phenomenological questions about how viewers construct their own story, and to what extent the 'author' influences that construction. For some viewers this is precisely not what they want from a film - they want their eyes on a dog leash, strictly guided through a rewarding story. But more adventurous viewers will find in the spatial openness a reward of a different kind, akin to interactive art and games.
See also this Salon interview with Figgis from 2000, which which aptly sums up the movie as "engaging from moment to moment, largely as a humorous game".