If the ’90s were the decade of independent film, the ’00s are already clearly marked as the decade of digitization. What this means, in a sobering if not yet fully comprehensible nutshell, is that the traditional, old-fashioned, gears-and-wheels mechanics of cinema are rapidly being replaced by the whizbang electronic technology of television and computers, the technical realities underlying the somewhat deceptive and oxymoronic term “digital cinema.”

As yet, few theatrical features are being shot on digital video, and fewer still are testing the new aesthetic and technical possibilities (and pitfalls) that shooting with cheap, lightweight digital cameras holds. One movie that does, Mike Figgis’ Time Code, strikes me as ultimately silly and fundamentally anti-aesthetic, enough so to raise a disturbing question: Does this technology actively undermine the qualities that we associate with film art, rather than simply transfering them to the setting of a snazzy new medium?

As noted here in my “Death of Film”/”Decay of Cinema” articles last year, I’m rather pessimistic about the artistic ramifications of digital. But to give credit where a modicum is surely due: Time Code reflects genuine and very timely ambitions. Figgis, a Brit best known for Leaving Las Vegas, understands that cinema is on the verge of tremendous changes with implications on every level of the creative and viewing processes. Phrased as an attempt to explore some of the new realities, Time Code may amount to little more than a stunt, but it’s at least a purposeful, forward-looking stunt.

Watching the movie, what you see is a screen divided into quadrants, each containing an image that appears to have been shot simultaneously with the others. The four stories, all transpiring on an afternoon in Hollywood, occasionally intersect with each other, but mostly remain separate. Particularly striking for technically attuned viewers is that all four cameras seem to run throughout the movie without a single cut (something that’s easily accomplished with video but impossible in film, where reels must be changed every 10 or so minutes). The movie’s “editing,” then, is accomplished by the viewer’s eye as it roves among the images. That process is determined both by the dramatic interest that each frame offers at a given moment, and by Figgis’ manipulation of the sound, which alternates among the stories and often overlaps two or more.

To give an idea of the intertwining narratives’ content: When the movie opens, the screen’s northeast quadrant shows a woman (Saffron Burrows) talking to a psychiatrist (Glenne Headly) about her husband. The northwest pane observes two women (Salma Hayek, Jeanne Tripplehorn) as they leave a residence, get in a limousine and head downtown, occasionally snorting coke, making out and arguing along the way. The two southerly images, meanwhile, follow the action in and around the ground floor of a building on Sunset Boulevard, where, among various comings and goings, a third-rate film director (Richard Edson) is attempting to cast a movie, and a philandering studio head (Stellan Skarsgaard) tries to balance his erotic impulses and the demands of his busy office.

As a comic means of interlocking the four panels/stories, earthquakes interrupt the action at several points; this is one way we know that all four images are happening at the same time. (All of the actors and the cameramen had to wear watches–digitally synchronized, of course–to make sure all this simultaneity unfolded with split-second precision throughout.)

A title at the movie’s end reveals that the satiric comedy-melodrama we’ve just witnessed wasn’t scripted. Rather, it was improvised within a predetermined structure, the basic story idea having been concocted by Figgis. From a purely technical standpoint, Time Code‘s creative gamble is undeniably fascinating–and impressive. The occasional improvised movie that comes along (e.g., Blue in the Face) generally looks like what it is; the acting’s patchy and erratic. Time Code, on the other hand, seems like it might have been scripted; the story and the performances flow much as they do in “normal” movies. Even granting that Figgis shot the movie more than a dozen times on consecutive days, finally choosing the best takes for the end result, the work of the actors and the production’s intricate logistical choreography are remarkable.

But, ultimately, so what? Intricate logistical choreography and actors who can improvise in character for 90 minutes have nothing essential to do with art. In fact, the nature of Time Code‘s “achievements” is sadly more akin to a tap-dancing horse or a guy who can keep 15 plates spinning at once than it is to any great film you might care to name. Is such elaborate but empty trickery the only promise the movies’ new era holds?

Perhaps not. The problem with Time Code is that all its technical wizardry is deployed to convey little of real interest. The movie’s characters are stock figures, its action a series of clichés. Phony showbiz types blabbing about the biz, screwing, doing drugs and acting vacuous–rather than being new, or in any way compelling, what we have here is a load of tired old dreck tricked out in a flashy package. But you can’t really blame the medium for that, since it’s so obviously in line with the general run of Figgis’ work.

He is, after all, a moviemaker whose pretensions are matched only by his consistent banality. He fancies himself a musical as well as a cinematic whiz, so that when Time Code opens, you groan to hear the first noodling notes of yet another deeply vapid Figgis jazz score (which, in this brazenly postmodern context, feels ridiculously anachronistic). The high point of his career to date, the vastly overrated Leaving Las Vegas, provides a compellingly gritty, atmospheric surface to a story that might have been written by computer. His nadir, the risibly self-important Loss of Sexual Innocence, manages to be pornographic and tedious at once.

This much can be said for Time Code: Its hectic, four-things-happening-at-once flux does capture something of the current moment’s media zeitgeist, with its atomized attention spans and vaunting of copious information over art’s careful discrimination. Yet this accomplishment, if you want to call it that, is ambiguous at best, since it uncritically furthers the very qualities that a better film would bracket and question. And by implication–one which becomes explicit in the movie’s press notes–it likewise furthers the preposterous myths that this new technology is leading us to more “truthful” and “democratic” moviemaking.

You keep a camera focused on an actor for 90 minutes without a cut and that somehow makes the movie more truthful? On the contrary, this is simply the pernicious lie that perennially attaches itself to naturalism. It can’t be said often enough: Actors and their emoting may be the sine qua non of TV soap operas, but they’re the least important elements of true cinema, the real value (and truth) of which depends primarily on ideas, writing and directorial vision.

As for the “democratizing” canard, that’s more laughable still. First off, there’s nothing democratic about Time Code itself. Its essential content and final shape were controlled entirely by Figgis, an established moviemaker working under the auspices of a major Hollywood studio, Sony Pictures. Second, even if digital cameras eventually allow every democratic Joe to make his own movie, where can this lead except to a flood of undifferentiated mediocrity? Art, by its nature, has little truck with tepid egalitarianism. We all crave to bow under the tyrannical yoke of a Shakespeare, a Mahler, a whip-cracking Fellini.

Time Code and its publicity invoke all manner of storied precedents, from Eisenstein, to Hitchcock’s Rope, to Cassavetes. But the figure that looms most noticeably over Figgis’ enterprise is Robert Altman. Much like P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, Time Code would like to be taken as a latter-day Nashville or Short Cuts, films dense with incident, idiosyncrasy and cool irony.

How did Altman become the patron saint and template-giver for vacuous posers like Anderson and Figgis? The answer lies in the fact that he’s the director of the American cinema’s modernist renaissance most associated with television, which gave him formal tropes that he ingeniously adapted to movies. Yet the sensibility underneath his televisual style always remained cussedly literary. Remove the foundations of content, feeling and analysis from his work and you get what Figgis and Anderson give us: movies that are essentially pretentious TV soaps, woozy with self-infatuation and the misguided sense that style is all.

Imagine that Woody Allen had taken Figgis’ dizzying technological conceit and applied it to his new comedy. He could have called the digi-movie Small Time Code Crooks, and used the four-screens-in-one device to show his batch of loser criminals kvetching at each other from four locations as they haplessly try to tunnel into a jewelry store to snatch the diamonds so they can retire to Florida.

Actually, don’t imagine this unappetizing novelty. If we never see Digital Woody, the world may be a better place. Allen at his best is a wonderfully old-fashioned filmmaker–full of 20th century brass and idiosyncrasy–and Small Time Crooks, though not a major addition to his canon, is his most charming, unprepossessing and purely enjoyable film in a long time.

Admittedly, the first 20 minutes seem to unveil a premise too thin to sustain an entire feature. Woody and Tracey Ullman play a blue-collar husband and wife crime team who open a cookie store as a front for their gang’s effort to tunnel their way into a major jewel heist. So, you think, we get to see them lift the diamonds, then bicker and backstab all the way to Hialeah?

But no. As delicious irony would have it, the heist fails but the cookie store takes off, elevating the would-be crooks to major corporate wealth and the movie itself to a plateau of finely tuned rags-to-riches social satire. Woody and Tracy always wanted to make a killing, but once they’re loaded down with dough–literally and figuratively–they’re anything but happy. Where Woody would once sit around with a beer watching television, now he’s got to put on an outlandishly tacky tuxedo and try to feign a knowledge of modern art for posers played by the likes of Hugh Grant.

Is this, as one of my colleagues suggested, Allen’s sly comment on America’s current boom in dot-com millionaires? Perhaps so. But Small Time Crooks hardly needs the justification of topicality. It’s a classic-mold movie comedy that’s also classic Woody Allen. EndBlock