Digital video technology is sweeping the world of film, and it has opened the art form up at both the high and low ends of production. At the high end, George Lucas has announced that his next "Star Wars" episode will be shot in digital video and released in theatres for projection either in video or film. Some world-class film festivals have already opened themselves to entries in video. And at the low end, filmmakers can now shoot and edit a feature in video for less than $10,000 in equipment. As a practical matter, that would have been impossible five years ago.
What this doesn't mean, though, is that art and talent don't count anymore. They do, and Mike Figgis's "Time Code" proves the point that ultimately technology is worthless without the talent to use it right. Figgis, who directed the hideously overpraised "Leaving Las Vegas," has here created a four-part story told simultaneously in continuous action (no cuts) with four video cameras and crews shooting in sync in different places -- though physically near each other, in and around an office building -- as his actors live through a particular hour and a half of time. He's divided the movie screen into four quadrants, with each mini-story seen in one quadrant and the sound levels raised and lowered according to whichever story he wants us to focus on at the moment. We're told that he gave the actors the setup and their characters' needs and goals, and then left them to improvise.
The problem is, there's no story there. A small Los Angeles film production company, Red Mullet, with offices on the ground floor of the building, is casting a soft-core porn film. Salma Hayek, a lesbian in a relationship with Jeanne Tripplehorn but also sneaking in an affair with Stellan Skarsgaard, wants to audition for the lead. Skarsgaard, the alcoholic head of the company and a compulsive cocksman, can't bring himself to show up for a meeting with the backers. His wife, Saffron Burrows, wanders in and out. His staff wonders where he is. There is a shooting at the production meeting, some cocaine is snorted, a couple of couplings take place, and -- tricky to pull off with four cameras simultaneously but still cheesy-looking on the screen -- there is an earthquake and aftershocks.
In other words we have a film without a story and with only indications and not human beings for characters. The plot is so thin that we have actors constantly repeating themselves as they search fruitlessly for something meaningful to do. Figgis has taken what might have been an extraordinary moment in film as an art form, a kind of Joycean approach to making movies, and given us instead only a technological hiccup.
And yet he's been bold enough to point the way toward a new kind of filmmaking, one that a better artist will surely explore sooner or later, and for that at least we owe him our thanks.