Mike Figgis’ Hollywood Is The Player Times Four

From time to time, I will try to do justice to movies that

have come and gone without being adequately appreciated. Mike Figgis’ Timecode

has been floating around the preview circuits for the past few months, and most

of what I heard about it was unfavorable. It’s been described by its promoters

as “part of Figgis’ daring evolution towards the ultimate in minimalist film

production ….The film was shot in one day entirely with hand-held digital video

cameras in sequence, in real time, with no editing. The plot-a black comedy

thriller set against Los Angeles

lifestyles-literally unfolded before the cameras as the actors each

forged an improvised trajectory for their

characters based on the central elements of an affair, a murder and an

ensuing Hollywood mystery.”

Now that I have seen Timecode

for myself, I can understand why previous viewers have had a problem with the

experience, and yet I found the movie interesting almost in spite of the degree

of experimentation involved. That is to say that there is something in the

content that is more compelling than the form. And here I am functioning as an

auteurist with a vengeance, in that I have been following Mr. Figgis’ career with

great interest ever since his first feature-length film, Stormy Monday , in 1988. Mr. Figgis not only wrote the

screenplay for this British transplant of an American gangster movie, but also

composed its jazzy background musical score. And he has been mostly on the

cutting edge of noir melodrama since, with such dark works as Internal Affairs (1990), Liebestraum (1991), Mr. Jones (1993), The

Browning Version (1994), Leaving Las

Vegas (1995) and One Night Stand

(1997). In the course of his career, Mr. Figgis has blended a finely tuned

eroticism with subtly impending violence.

Timecode ,

unfortunately, shows little of his subtlety or fine tuning. Everything goes way

too fast on the four square frames shown simultaneously on the screen as four

separate locations populated, generally in close-up, by an array of

intersecting characters more or less involved in the movie business. What is

described in the promotion as an “eclectic ensemble of actors” consists of

Xander Berkeley, Golden Brooks, Viveka Davis, Richard Edson, Aimee Graham,

Glenne Headly, Andrew Heckler, Holly Hunter, Danny Huston, Patrick Kearney,

Elizabeth Low, Daphne Kastner, Kyle MacLachlan, Mía Maestro, Leslie Mann,

Laurie Metcalf, Suzi Nakamura, Alessandro Nivola, Zuleikha Robinson, Julian

Sanders and Steven Weber. Don’t ask me who plays which role. As it is, my

companion and I were nudging each other all through the movie with such

whispered questions as “Is that Holly Hunter?… No, the one in the right

corner.”

The main characters are a movie executive played by Stellan

Skarsgård; his wife, played by Saffron Burrows; and Salma Hayek as an

auditioning actress balancing a lesbian relationship with a jealous woman

(played by Jeanne Tripplehorn) and the casting-couch exigencies of the movie

business. But the women are much more prominently identified than the men, and

only gradually does Mr. Skarsgård become involved in the action. I cannot say

at this point in my frantic moviegoing schedule whether repeated viewings of Timecode would yield aesthetic dividends

in the form of less eye-darting confusion. I am not sure that Mr. Figgis

expects or desires multiple viewings to get his point across. Frankly, I don’t

think he’d get repeat customers even if he wanted them. There’s not enough

snap, crackle and pop in the spectacle for such presumption.

Yet strangely, perhaps

perversely, I sort of liked Timecode -or

at least I appreciated what Mr. Figgis seemed to be saying. I think he is onto

something about the contemporary Hollywood lifestyle and about modern life in

general. His methods, so perplexing at first glance, seem appropriate for

characters with short attention spans, infinite self-absorption and

inexhaustible narcissism. Much of the time his characters seem to be moving

around haphazardly, and there are long interludes of silence in one or more of

the boxes. There are no back stories, and only very shallow backgrounds. Thus the scope of the film is very narrow,

but within its parameters Mr. Figgis achieves a sense of real time during which

nothing much is happening except on an inexplicably interior level.

Toward the end, Mr. Figgis stages an oddly comic parody of

his own potentially pretentious explication of his style. I began chuckling,

but not dismissively or derisively, because he was not sending up the whole

enterprise; the four-cameras-four-boxes rigor remained. Time did not have a

stop, and the one climactically violent act left behind a mesmerizing trail of

blood.

In the realm of fictional narrative films with live-action

cinematography (a realm in which I have chosen to specialize), attempts at

being completely different usually involve subtracting something from the usual

run of movies-or, in other words, making a movie with one hand tied behind the

director’s back. Past examples include Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene’s The Thief (1952), which dispensed

entirely with dialogue; Robert Wise’s The

Set-Up (1949), in which the events occur in real time, thus honoring

Aristotle’s unity of time (though foregoing his unity of space through

montage); Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope

(1948), a faux one-take exercise that makes its transitions in black while

eliminating montage; and, of course, Dogma 95, which forbids all sorts of

things in the name of an unmannered realism.

This kind of stunt cinema

seldom changes anything in the long run, and each example rises or falls on

factors other than the presumed and publicized innovation. Timecode is no exception to this rule, and if it rises, as I think

it does, it is because of the continuity of Mr. Figgis’ morbid vision through

the years.

Picasso, Admired and

Animated

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso ( Le Mystère Picasso ) was completed in

1955 and shown to the public for the first time at the 1956 Cannes Film

Festival. The ever-unpredictable festival audience reportedly rejected the film

with a vociferous display of hostility. A second screening with the 75-year-old

Picasso in attendance was greeted more politely, and the film itself was

honored by the festival with the Prix du Jury.

But why was the festival

audience so upset by the film? Was it a simple case of philistinism in action?

Or, less likely, was it a hypercritical outburst at a onetime genius who had

passed his prime? Did people object to the didactic mixture of painting and

film? Now that the Film Forum has revived The

Mystery of Picasso with a new 35mm print, we can decide for ourselves.

Clouzot (1907-77) was

also a controversial figure in the French cinema: His career actually began in

1942 during the German occupation of France with a slick thriller entitled The Murderer Lives at Number 21 , and

continued with The Raven (1943), a

misanthropic film about a poison-pen rampage in a French provincial village.

The fact that the film was backed by a Nazi-run film company, and allegedly

shown in Germany as anti-French propaganda, resulted in Clouzot’s six-month

suspension from filmmaking after the Liberation. Picasso also worked

undisturbed in Paris during the Occupation, but no one seemed to criticize him

afterwards. The embarrassing ironies of Marcel Ophüls’ The Sorrow and the Pity (1971) did not surface until 1970, a

quarter of a century after the first hypocritical flush of a belated patriotism

among the bulk of the collaborationist French populace. Be that what it may,

Clouzot enjoyed international success with Wages

of Fear (1953) and Diabolique

(1955), both no less misanthropic than the controversial The Raven back in 1943.

Clouzot, however, found new enemies on the staff of Cahiers du Cinema , most notably François

Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, though their objections were more aesthetic than

political. Still, both made an exception for The Mystery of Picasso , with Truffaut raving: “The film is about

poetry and we feel overwhelmed by it …. A work by Picasso created before our

very eyes! That is a miracle which, if need be, would justify the greatness of

cinema.” Godard was no less enthusiastic: “The only interesting film Clouzot

has made is one in which he was seeking, improvising, experimenting, one in

which he lived something: Le Mystère

Picasso .”

Ariana Huffington, in Picasso: Creator and Destroyer , raises a

provocative distinction between the two artists: “There were all the trappings

of adventure in the Victorine Studios: sweat, tension, excitement, exhaustion;

the buzzing, booming confusion of soundmen, gaffers and assorted technicians;

the sepulchral tones in which Clouzot announced his intentions while feverishly

sucking on his pipe: ‘My intention is to make a pedagogical film for those

interested in art.’ ‘And to think that I wanted to make a cartoon,’ sighed

Picasso.”

For myself, there were many moments in the film when

Picasso, the cartoonist, prevailed over Picasso, the pedagogue. Whatever else

Picasso was, he was clearly the greatest draughtsman of our time. To watch his

sure strokes creating worlds enmeshed in contrast and conflict is to watch the

Kurosawa of painters somehow incapable of the

metaphysical serenity of the Mizoguchi of painters, Matisse. But that is

a matter of personal taste.

I can’t imagine anyone with any interest in any art passing

up an opportunity to see The Mystery of

Picasso . The question of where it stands in the world of cinema is somewhat

more problematic. Perhaps it is not one thing or another, but a fluid mixture

of both Clouzot’s creative tribute to Picasso’s artistic genius and Picasso’s

desire to introduce his painting to the world of animation.