Mike Figgis is well on his way to being considered one of the most important filmmakers of our time. Unfortunately, most people will probably never see his recent and arguably most important experimental works.
Never one to shy away from challenging his audience, in 1995 Figgis brought us a gritty, harrowing tale of love and alcoholism in Leaving Las Vegas. The movie, shot on Super 16 film on a budget of just $4 million, was dark and visceral and through his intimate shooting style, Figgis managed to engage his actors and, in turn, his audience in a very intense emotional way.
A few years later, Timecode (2000), a 93-minute experimental film shot on Digital Video in real time on four cameras, all of which are seen on screen at one time (the screen is divided into four quadrants), pushed the boundaries of filmmaking and began Figgis’s love affair with the digital video medium.
His latest work, Hotel, is Figgis’s second forray into Digital Video and a mostly-improvised script (Timecode was improvised around a basic story and timeline). Based on a stripped down version of “the sexiest, bloodiest, foulest piece of clasical theatre writing,” The Duchess of Malfi, Hotel is a play within a play – a feature crew being observed by a documentary crew and one director wanting the other one killed. While shooting, Figgis encouraged experimentation with the cameras’ settings, giving it a trippy, shape-shifting feel. Yet to receive a release date, this film is unlikely to reach a large audience because this type of unconventional film generally strikes fear in the hearts of studio execs, and never make it to wide release.
Jessica Aldred at Shift.com puts it best: “Figgis demands our utmost commitment as active viewers, and in so doing, asks us to concentrate in an environment — the movie theatre — where we are largely accustomed to being passive, butter-fingered lommoxes.” In a time where Hollywood films keep getting Dumber and Dumber, with titles reflecting the average movie-goer’s attention span (Gone in 60 Seconds), Mike Figgis’s films will mostly, unfortunately, be relegated to small releases and repertory theatres. In the spirit of Leaving Las Vegas’s lead character’s musing, “I don’t know if my wife left me because of my drinking or I started drinking ’cause my wife left me,” Ms. Aldred over at Shift.com also wonders, “if mainstream movies started dumbing it down because we as viewers didn’t want to be challenged, or if we started dumbing down our expectations as viewers because movies ceased to challenge us.”
Indeed, the old Chicken/Egg debate… whatever the answer, I damn well hope people like Mike Figgis continue to push the envelope and create challenging films, because as long as he and others like him are making them, I will seek them out. Sick of the Hollywood machine? Then you should too.