Science Fiction Book Club
July 17, 2001
SPOILER WARNING: The following contains minor spoilers for Timecode. Not that you should care all that much.
I watched Timecode on DVD this past weekend. And let me tell you, it was the most mind-numbing, directionless, irredeemably boring thing I've seen in a long time.
Sure, the technical aspects of it were interesting. It took a lot of effort to set up those four simultaneous, uninterrupted scenes. It was interesting to watch a conversation from two or three different viewpoints at the same time. But those glimmers which caught my attention were few and far between.
I'll say it again: irredeemably boring.
In his very kind review of this movie, critic Roger Ebert says, "[T]he story is upstaged by the method... and a viewer not interested in the method is likely to be underwhelmed... The film never happens to us. We are always conscious of watching it. The style isn't as annoying as it might sound, but it does no favors to the story."
Okay, so it's an Experimental Film. You could tell that from the title alone, which trumpets technique over content. It's the kind of experiment that probably causes fanboy drooling in semiologists and other people who say "disjoined signifier" in daily conversation. But even as an technical experiment, it's really not as groundbreaking as everybody seems eager to believe.
More than anything, watching Timecode is like watching a bank of security camera monitors for an hour and a half. This technology has been around for decades. The fact that the cameras are handheld and able to move with the actors is a minor improvement. Imagine having a camera follow you around for ninety minutes on any given day. How much of that footage would actually be interesting, to you or anybody else? Yeah, that's what I thought.
Real life is, for the most part, pretty damn boring. Nobody makes movies about people brushing their teeth (and if somebody does, I don't want to know about it). I doubt many law enforcement officers really enjoy sitting on stakeouts and wiretaps, waiting hours or days for the few seconds of evidence that they need. You could argue that this boredom is one of the themes that Timecode explores, but considering how weakly the movie presents anything, it would be a difficult argument to defend.
There is a brief, self-satirizing moment in Timecode, when an actress pitches the concept of the movie itself-- four simultaneous stories on screen-- to a roomful of Hollywood executives, and one of them calls it "the most pretentious crap I've ever heard." Unfortunately, he's not that far off the mark. Timecode is not so much pretentious as misguided, trying to convince us that this is something new and extraordinary. And while the result is not crap, it does seem an awful lot like the emperor's new clothes.
One of the DVD's special features is "version 1" of the movie. As it turns out, the released version was actually the fifteenth-- i.e., the fifteenth "take", since there are no edits anywhere in the movie. The digital video cameras used required no set-up time at all, and blank videotape is very cheap compared to film stock. The cast and crew reviewed each version after it was shot and made changes to their timing, choreography, and dialogue over the course of two weeks.
I'm sure this movie was a blast to make, because of the freedom the performers had and the incredible effort required to plan and time everything properly. I can imagine the elation of the cast and crew as they saw the finished product on the big screen, gleaming, polished, and bursting with the subtext of their experiences during shooting. But I just can't share it.