Four Cameras are Better than One: Division as Excess in Mike Figgis’ Timecode – Nadia Bozak

Abstract: This paper argues that the democratisation of digital cinema has inaugurated a prevalence of the long take and the split screen and a resultant excess of images. Mike Figgis’ use of both the split screen and long take in his Timecode exemplifies the intimate connections between surveillance culture, digitisation and ideologies of material wealth. The idea, then, is that the split screen and the long take function in tandem as codified expressions of industrial culture’s ostensible abundance and patterns of consumption. The connection between aesthetics and economics is registered not only in terms of the raw materials necessary to record the image, but, when the image is multiplied by the split screen and then protracted within a long take, of vision itself.

Elements of Division

The fragmentation of screen space into two or more parts is often indivisible from another cinematic exercise in technical and logistic prowess – the long take. Opening the aperture indefinitely, leaving the camera to run until the reel of celluloid or, now, the memory card, expires is an integral and even essential element of what is becoming a specifically digital split screen phenomenon. And especially when the two do occur as a pair, the split screen and the long take can be theorized not only as symptoms of the post-industrial culture of excess from which they spring, but also as the result of a conflation between the technology that enables their occurrence and, in many cases, the surveillance systems which they service and, by turn, aestheticize. For, indeed, the split screen is not only a naturalized and ambient extension of new media’s and digital culture’s abundant instances of fragmentation (evidenced, for example, in the competing juxtaposition of computer monitors, television screens, and their respective popup windows and channels) it is also, like the long take, largely inseparable from the visual dynamics of security systems and what might be called the “genre” of closed-circuit television (CCTV). But what this “CCTV aesthetic” truly showcases is not only how normalized is post-industrial culture’s great submission to being monitored and monitoring in turn, but the tremendous excess and indeed glut of images that continues to be so zealously produced and reproduced by the so-called “digital democracy”. [1] And what makes digital technology so democratic in principal is its consistent association with effortlessness, affordability and thus commercial abundance. The same democratic inclusiveness that has, at least ideally, rendered digital media the universal standard for communication, and on levels economic, political and cultural, is also what parallels its ubiquity with redundancy, casting its ability to replicate so cheaply and easily as profligate and wasteful. Indeed, when issues of materialism and the ideology of consumption that underwrite post-industrial culture are taken into account, the political stakes of the split screen and the long take’s implicit abundance and excess come to reflect our culture’s over production and over consumption of consumer goods and images alike.

Mike Figgis’ Timecode (2000) is an experimental extravaganza of both the split screen and the long take. The film consists of four separate single takes that were shot simultaneously within the offices of “Red Mullet,” a fictional film studio located in Los Angeles. Figgis’ indulgence in the long take is complemented and thoroughly heightened by the fact that the four coordinated runs are displayed simultaneously, thus dividing the screen into four equal parts or quadrants. Figgis’ project was the first American studio production executed entirely in digital (Fabe 2004, 230). The film’s “amateur” stylistics depend largely on the use of mobile, hand-held cameras and the cast’s self-consciously improvised acting, both of which contribute to the suggestion of a rough-cut, low-budget homemade film. Surveillance, meanwhile, is most immediately palpable in terms of how the film’s roaming, multi-camera structure, suggests the omni-presence, and omnipotence, of a Kino-Eye that impalpably yet invasively “catches life unawares” (Vertov 1984, 41). As Thomas Levin argues, the importance of ,em>Timecode’s digital experimentation is its introduction of a “post-cinematic paradigm of surveillent narration” (2002, 592); but what complicates the film’s amateur and surveillance tropes and renders them obviously and ironically self-conscious is their technical sophistication, and the purposeful and even rigid formal system that manages the narrative, and thus the audience. There is nothing aleatory in the spontaneity suggested by these almost Vérité-like conceits. As Marilyn Fabe reminds us, in order to circumvent sensory overload and resultant confusion, Figgis employs several techniques to orient his viewers (2004, 232). The audio component, for example, is carefully regulated; rather than allowing competition between the quadrants’ concurrent and divergent soundtracks, amplification is shifted from one frame to another, privileging the more important threads of narrative activity as they occur (Fabe 2004, 232). What is more, Figgis used sheet paper for orchestral scoring as he mapped out and harmonized the film’s layers of simultaneous action into a careful choreography of his actors and cameramen, thus preventing the more “relevant” plot events from occurring in more than one quadrant at a time (Fabe 2004, 232). The frames do not function randomly, therefore, but are timed to coordinate into a deliberate set of relations and ultimately produce a specifically digital non-linear narrative. So, an unseen agent or centralized operating system is exerting control over what is an ostensibly organic flow of frames and images; the amateur quality yet remains, but it is disingenuous, innocuous, cultivated in order to highlight the duplicity that lies beneath the ostensibly banal surveillance image. And in so doing the film exploits to its maximum the DV camera’s capacity for girth, multiplicity and protracted duration. The result of this – digital cinema’s superlative limitlessness – is “semiotic excess,” as Levin terms it (2002, 593), though when thought of in material, practical, as well as aesthetic terms, is really an excess of vision itself.

While the film depends upon the abilities of digital video technology (from shooting on DV cameras to the editing technology that inspired the project), Timecode is also unrestrained in its self-conscious display of the improvisational capabilities of this medium’s fortitude and flourish. Overshadowing the satirical account of the volatile and superficial nature of the Hollywood film industry is Timecode’s structural formal conceit of fragmenting and at least conceptually “unmaking” a narrative film. “Unmade”: this is how Ana Pauls, the young upstart filmmaker within Figgis’ diegetic world, describes her own film, a project that is the obvious double of Timecode itself. The film’s resonance and longevity resides in how well it articulates and likewise anticipates the startling transformations that digitisation continues to have on cinema – technologically, politically and aesthetically, thus heralding, intentionally or otherwise, the absorption of the cinematic image into a universal regime of surveillant imaging, what Paul Virilio regards as an all-encompassing and non media-specific “great global optic” (2002, 110). What Timecode’s confluence of digitality and surveillance tropes (image fragmentation and extension of shot duration) continues to represent is how the image not only represents “life” (such as it is) but also monitors it, and thus produces it, concretised in recorded, time-coded, cinematic form.

The spilt screen was not uncommon in early cinema, and was typically employed to display the communication dynamics of a telephone conversation (Bordwell and Thompson 2004, 257); but the adaptation of continuity editing and cross-cutting between concurrent lines of activity supplanted multiple-frame imagery as the more subtle and sophisticated way by which to suggest such simultaneity. The split screen began to reappear in Hollywood’s widescreen spectacles of the 1960s; again, multiple framing was often employed to display the concurrent sides of a telephone conversation – Bye, Bye Birdie (George Sidney, 1963) is exemplary here (Bordwell and Thompson 2004, 257). The split screen can thus be counted as part of Hollywood’s reaction to its dramatic decline as television gained ascendency in post-war America: split screens, like large-screen formats and CinemaScope, exemplify the film industry’s embrace of technological extravaganza in an effort to outshine its new rival and check the consolidation of the latter’s assertions (Monaco 2001, 45). Paul Monaco notes that the advancement of the optical printer facilitated this brief but robust indulgence of the split screen (2001, 88). The split screens of the later 1960s – The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, 1968), The Boston Strangler (Richard Fleischer, 1968) and Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970), not only marked multi-framing’s decline, but are also notable for pinpointing a moment of transition in Hollywood studio filmmaking when editing shifted from being regarded as merely a practical necessity to a legitimate form of creative expression (2001, 101). Monaco maintains, however, that its use comprises little more than a clichéd convention and a footnote in cinematic history (2001, 64). On the contrary, the fact that it was so expensive to utilize this device (especially as it did little to contribute to narrative purpose) is what renders the split screen significant: it was inserted as an ornament or a flourish, and thus signaled mainstream cinema’s self-conscious promotion of its technology and, perhaps, financial might.

The split screen has now re-emerged, and assertively so. Indeed, digital technology and non-linear editing programs such as Avid and Final Cut Pro have shifted the split screen’s relative infrequency within the mainstream of narrative cinema to what is now a rather normalized device found in popular television productions (24 [Fox Network, 2001-] and certain episodes of Coupling [BBC, 2000-02, 2004] are the typical examples), all and sundry music videos, as well as broadcast news and the Internet. Notably, Avid’s “Trim Edit” function gives multi-framing a practical dimension, as this display option enables the user to view and manipulate two images simultaneously. As Figgis’ Timecode commentary for the DVD release explains, his previous project Miss Julie (1999) was shot with two cameras, and so the filmmaker spent a significant amount of time looking at his images side-by-side as he edited them (Figgis 2000). The experience inspired a split screen sequence in Miss Julie and soon after, Timecode itself. The manageable and user-friendly digital editing programs such as Avid or Final Cut Pro have transformed the split screen into common imagistic currency. So, just as the technical flourishes of The Thomas Crown Affair signal how a film’s mechanical dimensions can document the progress and advancements within cinematic technology, so Timecode can be read as a narrative about the digitisation of the cinema and, by extension, its abundant production of images.

Like the (analogue) split screen, the (analogue) long take was also once expensive and arduous to execute, and thus occurred relatively rarely, such that, when indulged, it functioned as a narrative highlight, an instance of a filmmaker’s personal expression and not (unless it was a static point-and-shoot, as in early cinema or B films) a practical necessity (Taves 1993, 340-341). Alfred Hitchcock’s experiment in Rope (1948) and the technical lavishness that opens Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) are canonical examples of how the long take signals the work of an auteur rather than that of a mere technician. Similarly, Alexander Sokurov’s virtuosic 90-minute continuous take in Russian Ark (2002) can be situated as a contemporary, and digital, counterpart. Compared with digital manifestations, an analogue long take now represents logistical intricacies and budgetary strains that continue to preclude the device’s prevalence, particularly if shot on celluloid. The mobilization of tracks, cranes, or vehicles indicates “extensive technical coordination among the camera operators, lighting technicians, and actors” which translates into high material and labour costs, especially as the long take is “unforgiving of mistakes” and therefore necessitates that a retake begin at the shot’s inception even if a flaw occurred at its end (Sward 2008). Digital technology, of course, is premised on the flexibility and forgivingness it grants the operator: an unsatisfactory take, or expendable quadrant, is easily discarded and replaced without sacrificing any amount of costly celluloid. As Fabe points out, the affordability of digital recording is what allows for the experimentation and creative risk that is Timecode’s premise (2004). Likewise, it was digital’s economy that enabled Sokurov’s long take project (Sokurov 2003). Like Figgis’ project, the later Russian film is founded on exploiting the digital camera’s capacity to record without cessation and completely eschew editing, but also to discard the takes that produced less than perfect results.

Digital or analogue, the long take and the split screen remain defined by a disinclination to interrupt: the split screen will not break apart or disguise the simultaneity of concurrent (or disparate) actions, while it is the actual exposure that the virtuosic long take will not interfere with. In both instances, the refusal to cut, edit, or otherwise interrupt results in the production, occupation, and then maximal exploitation of cinematic time and space. The long take and the split screen, in their current digitised forms, narrate the prowess, power and saturation level of what has become known as “the digital democracy” (Boler 2006). Thus, theorizing this pair of specific formal decisions – opening the aperture indefinitely and seemingly indefatigably, or splitting the screen into multiple venues of vision – proves an especially useful way to establish a direct correspondence between cinema’s technical advances, aesthetic conventions and our culture’s pervasive ideology of consumption and limitless growth. The excess of vision that Figgis’ film formulates and then indulges accurately signals what is at the heart of digital image culture: an ideology of limitless innovation and its unfettered consumption.

Vision as Excess

“Show me the budget and I’ll show you the script.” Thus it is that Mike Figgis paraphrases Jean-Luc Godard during Timecode’s DVD commentary, highlighting how the film product is fundamentally determined by economic conditions. Indeed, the economic dimensions of cinematic technology in general and the digital long take/ split screen in particular are an imperative component of Timecode’s complex discursive layers (Figgis 2000). Consider, for example, how the long take records the passage of time without apparent interruption and likewise measures the length of the reel; the amount of celluloid (in material and therefore monetary values) upon which the shot itself has also been recorded. And of course, when used in conjunction with a split screen, the same feat is accomplished twice (or more) over. The excesses of cinema make evident, and in palpable terms, the links between the materiality of cultural production and the economics of ubiquity (of objects and images alike) that defines post-industrial consumer culture and the digitisation that is its apogeal achievement.

So it is that the split screen and the long take, together and separately, accomplish far more than to gauge the duration of real time or foreground the concurrent flow of events. André Bazin’s conception of cinematic realism describes the necessary disappearance of the interface or the “hand of man” that mediates the image. According to Bazin’s “myth of total cinema”, until it can be rendered without human interference, cinematic realism will remain only an ideal. Pure cinema, true realism, as Bazin argued, is the goal and purpose of cinema but it existed for him only in the imagination. An unattainable utopia, then, “the cinema,” as Bazin wrote, “has yet to be invented”(Bazin 1967, 21). Bazin’s celebration of the use of deep focus and attendant long take for its democratic tendencies might situate him as a harbinger of digital cinema in general and its protracted shot durations in particular. As opposed to the way in which montage will guide the viewer into accepting a predetermined meaning, Bazin argued that depth of focus left the eye to linger over an image and thus allowed the viewer to actively make sense of what was on the screen (1967, 50). As Bazin writes, depth of focus has the capacity to bring the spectator closer to reality because it requires a “more active mental attitude” and a “more positive contribution on [the viewer’s] part to the action in progress” (1967, 35-36). For Bazin, then, the long take represented an aesthetic and political ideal, for it “removes the hand of man” from the cinematic process and thus brings the viewer closer to whatever “reality” might be. But, importantly, it also puts cinema in the hands of the viewer, requiring that he or she effectively edit in the moment, as the shot transpires, and thus implies a set of conditions not unlike those of Figgis’ uncut quadrant of long takes. Indeed, the ease and ubiquity of digital filmmaking has diminished cinematic infrastructure on any number of levels, not only eliminating the post-production cut and inserting the long take and the split screen in its stead, but the physical presence of the camera itself is radically minimized. Timecode’s exploration of digital filmmaking suggests that the camera can seamlessly infiltrate life’s events, roaming and exploring the space of the production studio and overseeing its most private encounters without detection.

But in fact the effortlessness with which digitality captures a presumably pure, unadulterated reality is supported by a highly complex production infrastructure, revealed most blatantly in this film’s (or any other’s) extensive list of collaborators, contributors and acknowledgments that compose the opening and then closing credits. As such, the discrete digital camera and its seemingly organic long takes might very well suggest the removal of the “hand of man” from the image, but when matched with split screens such as Figgis’, these Bazinian assumptions shatter. That is, when the democracy of the long take is multiplied, such as it is in Timecode, and so takes on extreme proportions, the liberation imparted by the open aperture and the viewer’s lingering eye is undermined, for an abundance of democracy, choice and accessibility, such as it is, can be transformed into a tyranny of the same. Excess, in other words, sensorily or materially, can paradoxically impoverish.

“At that point where motivation fails, excess begins” (Thompson 2004, 517). Cinematic excess, according to Kristin Thompson’s essay of the same name, is an inherently elusive term, and so she defines it fleetingly and obliquely. Excess for Thompson might be broadly understood as that which makes the viewer aware of the very materiality of the film itself; it is located in the gratuities and flourishes that draw attention to cinema as a technology and film form as a consciously conceived system. For Thompson’s concerns, excess is specifically and homogeneously cinematic, and yet the term resonates elsewhere, loaded as it is with economic, cultural and political associations. George Bataille’s essay in general economy, The Accursed Share, for example, is based on the necessity to expend excess unproductively: lavishly, that is, without return. Bataille fixates on the abundance or “excess” of energy that humans and their societies have internally and inherently available to them, the surplus of which must somehow be exuded (1988, 33). Capital creates wealth in order to consume and so destroy it: this is often done productively, by extending one’s own growth. But because growth is limited and retaining surplus is self-destructive, excess is best expended. Wilfully unprofitable indulgences in the arts, in non-procreative sex, the staging of spectacles and the construction of monuments are the primary means by which excess energy is necessarily and “uselessly” lost (Bataille 1988, 33). So it is that processes of purging surplus have mutated into socially and culturally inscribed behaviour, which is often systematized as visual displays (118).

Bataille’s theory is not unlike Thorstein Veblen’s influential notion of “conspicuous consumption.” It is in Theory of the Leisure Class that Veblen asserts, for example, that competition between social groups and individuals is articulated through displays of conspicuously consuming goods and, more importantly, conspicuously wasting them (1950, 180). The digital democracy and the abundance of images that attends it reconfigures “cinematic excess” and renders it a particularly useful and topical term, one which exposes the economic, material and ideological factors that belie digital cinema’s increasingly excessive spectacles. And so what is “conspicuous” (and excessive) about Timecode and its CCTV aesthetic is the way it consumes screen time and space, multiplying and expanding it, dividing a single narrative into four, and all the while exploiting the capabilities of available technology by means of showcasing it within a stunning abundance of visual material. Of course, as Veblen argued, conspicuously consuming is always matched by conspicuously wasting: and, indeed, in terms of the split screen, most of Timecode’s visual material will be wasted, for, as Figgis concedes on the DVD version’s commentary, the viewer cannot give his or her attention to more than one screen at a time. So, while our eyes shift between narratives, we sacrifice the events occurring in the other three quadrants, and thus they are elided: the threads of the narrative loosen, unravelling or “unmaking” the film such as Figgis intended.

Like any good democracy, digital’s is founded on ideals of availability, affordability, inclusiveness and, as a result, ubiquity as opposed to being rarefied or elite; from DV cameras to Final Cut Pro equipped laptops, from home theatres to personalized libraries of DVDs, the digital image is produced, received and duly consumed in profuse amounts. The relationship between excess and vision is no longer in the sense of Bataille’s a “vision of excess” (of transgression, subversion, perversion) but, more literally and immediately, an excess of vision itself. Thus understood, it is not the image itself that shocks, but the amount of images we have to choose from. Timecode exemplifies this fact, for, if the film played out in a conventionally and sequentially edited form, it might not succeed in engaging the viewer’s attention. In other words, despite the film’s sexual content, drug use and feigned Hollywood intrigue, what is riveting about Timecode is not the narrative but that there are four of them. Figgis’ split screens, then, succeed in nothing if not forcing the viewer to confront how cinema, in terms of film form and narrative structure, are determined by available technology and how a given filmmaker chooses (or is forced) to interact with and manipulate that which budgetary considerations puts at his or her disposal.

The Direct Cinema movement of the 1960s, clearly a touchstone for Figgis’ project in particular and the digital documentary in general, was also premised on fidelity to real time and the actuality of events, achievable, it was argued, through use of the long take and loosely edited film (Ellis and McLane 2007, 222-23). And like the excess of the image achieved through digitisation, Direct Cinema was in part made possible by the democratisation of cinematic production: raw materials, cameras and film stock in particular, became more affordable, while equipment – cameras and sound recording devices – were physically lighter and easier to use (Ellis and McLane 2007, 210). Further, as Charles Musser notes, not only were long takes profligately indulged, but certain filmmakers were able to be incredibly prolific in their documentary output (Musser, 2006). And this new documentary style approached editing in the moment rather than in post-production. Like Direct Cinema’s commitment to edit in the moment by zooming in or out, altering focus, or changing camera position, Timecode’s closed-circuit aesthetic indulges in sustained pursuit of capturing a cinematic real time. But real time is not enough, it must be multiplied by four. As Leo Enticknap’s technological survey of cinema explains, the 16mm camera favoured by Direct Cinema was replaced in the 1980s by video – an even more accessible, user-friendly medium (2005, 39). Video, meanwhile, has now been superseded by digital technology and a cinema whose aesthetic is characterized by how very forgiving it is: the delete function, arguably, is as indulged as maximizing a camera’s broad reaches of storage space. Even more than video, the digital democracy is singular in how it enables amateur and/or independent filmmaking and threatens the hegemony of conventional Hollywood cinema which is typically fictional, based on invisible continuity editing and, as “style is subordinate to narrative” and “must not draw attention to itself”, uses a single screen (Hayward.2000, 66). But as the digital medium is made more widely available and image production and replication more accessible, its quality is perhaps compromised, or at least viewer expectations experience a shift, if not a complete renovation. Indeed, the difference between television’s very successful multi-screen program 24 and the former “difficulty” of engaging with Timecode’s quadrants testifies to how technologically innovative and experimental gestures are inevitably normalized and made conventional, absorbed into the mainstream and added to the repertoire of what audiences will tolerate and then come to expect. Homemade do-it-yourself digital video ceaselessly gains momentum and public display, as does encountering these images on smaller and smaller screens, both of which testify to a lessening of, or at least alteration to, the standards of what is cinematic. Such, after all, is the dialectic evolution of any mode of cultural production. Cinema, then, is not the privileged exemplar of this model of technological, cultural, and social development, and Timecode does not argue as such. What the film does accomplish is to foreground how technological change is manifested within narrative and aesthetic shifts and, therefore, audience expectation.

Watching Waste

An “unedited” or “unmade” film, Timecode, takes for narrative and structuring conceit the generation of “trash” itself – from the lewd backstage intrigue to the extraneous quadrants that we cannot watch. As Veblen theorizes, excess itself is never disposed of single-handedly or in isolation; wasting requires an audience, in other words, it cannot exist on its own (1950, 180). Bataille argues similarly, when he proclaims that destroying or giving away a material object renders the giver “rich” for having “ostentatiously consumed what is wealth only if it is consumed” (1988, 69). What is wasted, purged or expunged, in other words, is thus reconfigured as wealth by the recipient of a “gift” or observer of a spectacle. So, what is at the heart of apparently innocuous gestures of wasting or disposing is an assertion of stature: social or cultural, but always economic. Like Bataille, Susan Strasser draws on Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption (and its accompaniment, conspicuous waste) to show how disposable consumer products are marketed for the social empowerment that is engendered in the consumer when something is thoughtlessly tossed out; “discarding things,” Strasser writes, “is a demonstration of power” (1999, 9). Though apparently immaterial and ostensibly intangible, images are produced, consumed and discarded, as are any other commercial goods. Digital media’s ubiquity and its capacity for unrestrained recording and watching thus imply not only an aesthetics of excess but also a politics of storage and/or disposal that is problematized by the tension between the material and/or immaterial quality of cinematic production.

As it waits to “expire” and is subsequently disposed of, surveillance video is retained in hardcopy format and thus requires a generous amount of physical storage space. Security tapes are, after all, mostly useless, as they are ideally intended never to be viewed; optic security resonates, therefore, as an exemplary instant of the excess of images produced by digitisation. There is, then, a complex relationship between Figgis’ unmade surveillance film and what Paolo Cherchi Usai calls the “unseen” image (2001) – all the files and fields of archived images (films and photos, celluloid and now digital) accumulating to the point that it is impossible for the average viewer to consume even a fraction of what is actually available. This is part of what comes with the digital democracy, the prevalence of surveillance video, and “independent” films such as Figgis’; thus the task of archiving the incalculable reels of unwatched, un-surveyed recordings is as daunting as the prospect of ever having enough time to view them. As Cherchi Usai points out, “relatively few moving images can be seen in the course of a lifetime;” what we do manage to take in represents only a “tiny fraction of those actually made” (2001, 93). For Cherchi Usai, the unseen are films made with an audience in mind, and yet there exists a plethora of images premised on never being presented to a viewer, such as those collected for security purposes. So, because it is a feature film approximation of surveillance video, Figgis’ excessive cinema actively perpetuates, if not exploits, not only the unmade but also the unseen and establishes a specifically digital and inherently critical relation between both.

The effect of the unedited split screen/ long take experience is that we are confronting waste, excess, that which should or would have been eliminated if conventional editing, narrative patterns, and shooting strategies had been observed. Figgis’ project might draw specific attention to the technical and narrative possibilities of multiple and simultaneous cameras, but concurrently shooting a single action or sequence from numerous vantage points is not unusual, particularly in action film. Sam Peckinpah’s rapid-fire montages of gun violence in The Wild Bunch (1969), for example, or the seamlessly complex martial arts sequences in The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers, 1999), involve gathering together a plethora of angles and perspectives obtained by a number of cameras and then editing them together. The result, though, is the opposite of Figgis’ uncut film – the over-cut one. Yet, unlike the editing excesses of Peckinpah or the Wachowski Brothers, it is the very absence of the cut that forces the viewer to contemplate and perhaps then appreciate the practical and technical foundations of cinematic practice. What might it mean, Timecode’s split screens ask us, to abandon or be dispossessed of our typical means of production and to make cinema without cutting, pasting, and, perhaps, without wasting a cell or digit of support surface? The experience of Timecode gives the impression that its maker was either deprived of the means of editing and therefore resorted to the multi screen as an approximation of editing, or else could not decide what to discard from his accumulated images and so chose to display them all. The question, then, is whether or not film becomes waste when it is or is not edited. Do the long take and the split screen horde waste and thus over-indulge in visualizing excess or, conversely, is editing, as the process that relentlessly trims excess away, responsible for producing waste? In other words, perhaps the avoidance of editing is more wasteful than editing itself. This difference is subtle, and somehow counter intuitive, but it belies what is a fundamental paradox in Figgis’ film, namely that excess can be impoverishing and what seems a liberal indulgence in technology and style in fact depends upon premeditation and authorial control.

While his form is so indicative of surveillance systems, Figgis’ narrative is, of course, also partly premised on interpersonal monitoring and voyeurism. The most sustained instance occurs as Lauren (Jeanne Tripplehorn) plants a bug on her girlfriend (Salma Hayek) and, eavesdropping upon the latter’s indiscretions throughout the film, maintains a constant audio connection between hers and Hayek’s quadrants, thus complementing the visual relations rendered by Figgis’ multiple frames. But less immediate (and more insidious) dimensions of the CCTV trope are the film’s technological factors and production conditions and, specifically, that Timecode’s quartet of cameras shot the entire film fifteen consecutive times. As Hille Koselka explains, in the contemporary urban environment, a surfeit of surveillance cameras have come to control activity, time and space, and with relentless “intensity”, 24 hours a day (2003, 304). [2]Because the amount of information these cameras gather is so great, most of it is “useless”, as David Lyon argues, and even with digital’s capacity for organization and storage, “the sheer mass of data [is] impossible to handle” (quoted in Koselka 2003, 304). The footage accumulated by the closed circuit surveillance video that Figgis’ film so clearly approximates is mostly ephemeral, destined to be “wiped”, a further complication to add to Timecode’s split screen surveillance trappings. Indeed, the reason behind video technology’s prevalence in both the television and security industries (and then, in modified form, within the home), was that cassette tapes were economical as their surfaces could be re-recorded multiple times (Enticknap 2005, 178). Added to this is the fact that what the “closed circuit” of security television refers to is how its signal, unlike broadcast television which is openly transmitted, is received only by a specific set of monitors, reserving this glut of material for private consumption (and wastage). Enabled by the digital democracy, specifically the prevalence of web-cams and live-streaming available on the Internet, the closed-circuit is more easily accessed and distributed, transforming what was once a endogamous self-consuming display, deprived of a viewership apart from its own cameras or hired surveyors, into the “open circuit” (Koselka 2003, 306) of multiple perspectives and an exponential field of screens. Images, and especially digital ones, as the CCTV aesthetic tells us, are cheap, ubiquitous and, because of their unmanageable volume, necessarily expendable.

Digitisation’s democratic principles render cinematic resources accessible, and not just to professional practitioners, but to amateurs, viewers and producers alike. Waste can be exploited, to the point that indulgence itself results in its own specific aesthetic. With digital media, however, the conception that it is purely immaterial encourages a surfeit of images, such as those accumulated when making a film that requires multiple takes before achieving one that is ideal. The fallaciousness of digital’s immateriality resides in the fact that the technology that enables its support surface proves more materially dependent than that of the cinema it is eclipsing, and for no other reason than the troublingly rapid pace with which the DV camera and all its attendant parts are rendered disposable by planned technological obsolescence – the mandate of the electronics, and now digital cinema, industries.

Four cameras are better than one, and perhaps so are four viewings of Timecode. New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik has contemplated what might be considered “the art of the DVD extra”, arguing that the director’s commentary has become more than addendum but an “organic genre” all its own (2007,70). Gopnik points out that the so-called director’s cut which justifies the re-issuing of extant discs is in fact a contradiction in terms; what these cuts amount to is expansion rather than ellipses, as the term implies. Indeed, in his search for value in digital technology’s rehabilitation of cinema’s discards, what Gopnik finds is not the revelation of new material so much as embellishment of the old (2007, 70). So, a further layer of over abundance and consumption, waste and excess that enhances Figgis’ experiment is how, if a viewer feels so compelled, he or she might choose to separate out and indulge each quadrant separately, thus extending the film’s running time a further three times over. And this is with or without Figgis’ intelligent (and, for current purposes, useful) commentary as accompaniment; thus the digital democracy adds to Figgis’ unmade cinema another layer of what will be, for many and most, the great unseen.

Final Cuts

As the digital democracy renders image making increasingly effortless, and thus accelerates the production of visual culture, the amount of images available to us should become as significant as the aesthetics and ethics of what they might be depicting. And, as surveillance tropes are absorbed into cinematic patterns of mainstream narration (Levin 2002, 581) the result is an unprecedented amount of unedited and unscrutinised visual (and physical) image material. Like the Kino-Eye that Dziga Vertov theorized (and visualized) in Man with a Movie Camera (1929) the autonomous surveying camera is energized by the almost limitless possibility of technologized vision; and so it documents relentlessly, concretising as filmic evidence nothing less than sight itself. Though theorists and practitioners alike might privilege the difficultly of celluloid filmmaking, equating digital’s comparative ease (the very aspects that render it inclusive and democratic) with “carelessness” and “nihilism” (Geuens 2002, 16), there is another dimension to this – editing’s apparent retreat – that must be accounted for. On a very material level, the ascendency of surveillance aesthetics combines with the affordability of digital support surface and is then actualised as an archive of tangible excess: the real time footage of surveillance records, personal archives or professional work, once recorded, saved, stored (and perhaps thrown away) is the physical residue of unregulated and unmediated vision. Digital or analogue, the split screen and the long take are both informed by a commitment to eschew that which has come to define dominant (Hollywood) narrative cinema, the cut. The split screen, like the long take, is an exercise in how to edit by proxy, without performing the physical work of implementing an edit. While the long take opens the aperture and records freely, without seeming interruption to a given sequence of events or passage of time, the split screen forces a relation between images, rendering a sort of montage in real time, achieved by nothing more than the juxtaposition of images.

And so there is always an interface, some sort of filtration system that performs a semblance of editing, however basic. Because first-hand editing decisions are made actively, while shooting, and are hidden within the spontaneity of camerawork or ambulatory motion (physically turning a corner, thus cutting from one space into another) and/or the operator’s singular way of seeing (such as the decision to rack focus, say, or zoom in on a subject), they remain integral. So, what is not obvious in Timecode’s ostensibly uncut or unmade aesthetic is the supremacy rather than the suppression of the (rather insidious) edit. But the effort to circumvent the edit introduces a conundrum nothing less than ontological; for indeed, cinema without editing is vision without blinking, the mind without thought: an impossibility, if only because watching a film necessarily imposes the blink, this basic, primordial form of editing, upon the screened images. Thus, the audience fulfils what the filmmaker can or will not, finishing the post-production cutting phases as it watches two or three or four streams of events transpiring in all their multi-relational dimensions. What is more, the seeming spontaneity achieved by Figgis’ multiple long takes disguises the logistical extravagance of the film’s production. As the commentary on the Timecode DVD relates, for all the film’s seeming impulsiveness and crude aesthetics (amateur video cross-pollinated with CCTV), its execution involved sophisticated logistic coordination, painstaking storyboarding and as many as fifteen full takes before the ideal one was captured (Figgis 2000).

Figgis’ attempt to remove the conventional cut from the filmmaking process via juxtaposed screens and profligately extended takes thus signals the obsolescence not only of editing, but of cinema itself. Technological refinement of the movie camera, as Virilio argues, corresponds with diminution in physical size; the shrinking of the camera apparatus ultimately culminates in its disappearance into and/or saturation of all extensive realms (cultural, aesthetic, political, economic): the pervasive logic of the camera and the image, Virilio argues throughout his work, liquidates divisions between war and entertainment, surveillance and cultural output. So, for Virilio, just as other modes of representation have “decomposed” or disappeared into cinema (1991, 107), cinematic history is nothing less than the narrative of its own disappearance, wherein a total “synergy” between eye and motor, operator and apparatus, finally abolishes their differences (1995, 57). An integral dimension of Virilio’s “aesthetic of disappearance” is obsolescence, namely how the sophistication of a technology is gauged not by its longevity or endurance but rather by how quickly it is antiquated and rendered extinct, clearing the way for the next (equally ephemeral) innovation (1991, 93). And yet what the digital split screen also signals is not the end of editing itself, for every eye must blink, but the supplanting of the editor by digital technology. Avid’s non-linear editing, after all, is the real star and pivot point of Timecode. And so Timecode’s CCTV screens seem to push the “congruence of eye and motor” (Virilio 1991, 59) to its limit, proclaiming digital technology as the final phase before the ascendancy of Vertov’s autonomous Kino-Eye or Virilio’s Vision Machine. And as the filmmaker relegates the decisions of editing to the computer program and then to the audience, he asks how this experiment can even be called cinema, and, by extension, how it could not be?

What Timecode ultimately highlights is the way in which the very technology of the camera and the formal dimensions of editing (rather than what is being represented) can be directly engaged as a means of political discourse. While Bazin understands montage as an attempt to “rule out the ambiguity of expression,” he extols depth of focus for its democratisation of vision (1967, 36). The digital video camera’s ability to freely roam and record vast amounts without interruption thus signals the end of the aesthetic tyranny of montage and heralds the democratic promises of what has become our culture’s dominant mode of expression and communication. What Figgis’ DVD commentary implies is that, the rhetoric of ease and simplicity that accompanies digital technology is rather misleading, for the strictures that facilitated the film’s seeming effortlessness and amateur aesthetic in fact introduced a new set of logistical and technical burdens which seem to defeat the perception of the “liberated” digital film. And, of course, transferring the footage to 35mm for theatrical distribution contributed yet another layer of effort and expense, and literally multiplied Timecode’s quadrants once again as they assumed physical, celluloid form. Four cameras are better than one, three takes might as well be fifteen: the minimalism, ease and accessibility of the digital democracy is itself excessive, and the quadrant screens of Timecode exploit it as such. As non-linear editing programs and the roaming DV camera assume apogeal status within current cinematic practice (whether professional or amateur, the terms are surely slipping), their vast amounts of operational power, storage space, distribution forums, and sites of production and reception “disappear” the edit into a new set of material, economic and aesthetic conditions: such is the implication of Timecode’s relentless split screen and long take.


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Bazin, André. 1967. What is Cinema? Vol. 1. Trans. Hugh Grey. Berkley: University of California Press.

Boler, Megan. 2006. Digital Dissent and the Politics of Truth. Paper presented at the Women and Gender Studies Institute Series Biopolitics and Technoscience: How are Science and Technology Remaking Life Itself?, University of Toronto, December 6, in Canada.

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Figgis, Mike. 2000. Director Commentary. Timecode, DVD. Directed by Mike Figgis. Culver City, CA: Columbia Tristar Home Video

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Levin, Thomas. 2002. Rhetoric of the Temporal Index: Surveillant Narration and the Cinema of “Real Time”. In CTRL[SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, eds. Thomas Y. Levin, Ursula Fronhe and Peter Weibel, 578-93. Karlsruhe, Germany: ZKM Center for Art and Media; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

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–––. 1994. Vision Machine. Trans. Julie Rose. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.

–––. 1991. Aesthetics of Disappearance. Trans. Philip Beitchman. Paris: Semiotext(e).


[1] This term is used and discussed by Boler (2006) in connection with her research on what she calls “digital dissent”. Boler’s work examines the ways in which popular user-generated web-based forms employ digtial technology as a means by which to manipulate, undermine and thus challenge the information and images derived from dominant news and media agencies.

[2] Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2007) is a recent and notable example of the ways in which the omnipresent camera has inserted itself into the social, cultural and aesthetic fabric of everyday life. The film’s narrative (about a CCTV controller) is premised on closed-circuit technology and is remarkable for its subtle and nuanced arguments surrounding the social and ethical implications of digital surveillance systems. Equally notable is Arnold’s use of diegetic security monitors, as well as the formal employment of the long take and the predatory camera (hand held and static). The subtext thus conveyed is digital’s transformation of the United Kingdom (from where this film originates) into the most surveyed country in the world.

Author Bio

Nadia Bozak teaches documentary cinema within the Literary Studies Program at the University of Toronto. She is also a novelist; Orphan Love was published in 2007 by Key Porter Books.

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  1. Penn Kemp says:

    Thanks for this new perspective. I enjoyed the reach of your rhetoric. Here is one para. as a ‘found’ poem:)

    when the democracy of the long take
    is multiplied, such as it is in Timecode,
    and so takes on extreme proportions,

    the liberation imparted by the open aperture
    and the viewer’s lingering eye is undermined,
    for an abundance of democracy, choice and

    accessibility, such as it is, can be transformed
    into a tyranny of the same.

    Excess, in other words, sensorily
    or materially, can paradoxically