Time Code

In one of the most inventive films in years, “Time Code” writer/director Mike Figgis set up four digital cameras to follow four sets of actors for 93 minutes, all without any cuts or edits. He also gave them only situations, allowing them to improvise much of the dialogue.

Improvised films are not new (“The Blair Witch Project”), nor are films that consist of one continuous shot with no cutting (“Rope”). What sets this apart is that all of the four little movies he came up with are shown to us at once, in four quadrants of the movie screen. It’s like sitting in the surveillance room at JC Penney and watching the different parts of the store all at once.

The obvious question, of course, is: Is it hard to follow. Do you have to ask? We’ve been raised with remote controls; many people find it hard NOT to watch more than one TV show at once. Two or three generations ago, people went out to see a play, and that was it. Now, plays often feature multi-media effects, movies have “movie-within-a-movie” plots, and knowing an actor’s behind-the-scenes contract disputes is often essential in understanding why a TV show’s stories go in the direction they do.

In short, “Time Code” is no more daunting a challenge than our media-saturated, multi-tasking brains are already living up to on a daily basis. Give yourself some credit, man.

And besides, it’s not like you’re watching four entirely different movies. The characters all inter-mingle; what it boils down to is an ensemble picture with a dozen or so characters and their own private subplots to keep track of. Their lives intersect, but the difference between this and other intersecting-lives films like “Pulp Fiction” is that rather than just showing us a character’s plot and then having him suddenly meet up with someone we already met in what we thought was going to be an unrelated side-story, we see it all happening at once. Instead of jumping around, showing us this person’s story, then this person’s, then that person’s, then showing how they all intersect, there’s no jumping. They’re all going on, but in different quadrants of the screen.

There is generally not much competing for attention. Usually, it’s clear where the main action is, and the sound gets turned down a bit in the other boxes. We can still watch, though. It’s a voyeuristic little treat, watching two characters (Selma Hayek and Jeanne Tripplehorn) drive to an audition (saying practically nothing of interest), while at the same time watching the producers of the film one of them’s going to audition for, while seeing the film studio head’s wife (Saffron Burrows) at a therapist, talking about her failing marriage, while learning that her husband, the studio head (Stellan Skarsgard) is having an affair with the woman who’s about to audition (Hayek), who is in a car driving with her lesbian lover (Tripplehorn), who is suspicious that something is going on.

A movie full of characters whose lives intersect in interesting ways is cool enough already; “Time Code” just takes it a step further.

As a movie, it’s not spectacular. The stories are not insightful or new, and the acting is nothing to write home about. But from a technical standpoint, it’s a sheer marvel.

There’s also some fine self-referential comedy about the filmmaking process itself. The whole thing is voyeuristic — often, one or more panels of the film consists of nothing more than a character walking down the street — and when Tripplehorn’s character suspects her lover is unfaithful, what does she do? She plants a microphone on her so she can hear what goes on. A dirty trick, sure, and an invasion of privacy — but it’s exactly what we’ve been doing the whole time.

Near the end (when, by the way, the film has lost most of its subtle observation of human relations and become rather farcical), someone pitches a crazy idea to the film studio: What about doing a movie in which four movies happen simultaneously, all shown on a screen divided into four quadrants? One of the suits dismisses it at “the most pretentious crap I’ve ever heard.” By admitting this potential self-importance, writer/director Figgis mounts a pre-emptive strike against critics who might be inclined to say the same thing about “Time Code.” (Remember when Jerry and George had an offer to do a show for NBC on “Seinfeld,” and Jerry thought George’s idea of “a show about nothing” was ridiculous?) Fortunately, “Time Code,” while it does rely a little too heavily on its gimmick — again, it would never work as a regular movie, because there’s just not much to it — nonetheless is comfortable enough with it to tweak it, make fun of it, and just generally enjoy itself. The format allows for some nice parallelism, too, like a moment when, for various reasons, the characters in each of the four quadrants are crying all at once.

A- (; R, frequent harsh profanity, one scene of explicit sexuality and some nudity, one scene of violence.)