'The Cello' bears witness to the ticking of the clock

Times Staff Writer

For anyone who persists in thinking Hollywood filmmakers don't know how to say "Cut!" Showtime is back with "Ten Minutes Older: The Cello." Like last year's "Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet," this series features renowned international directors whose task is to create a 10-minute film on the subject of time.

"The Cello" boasts films by Bernardo Bertolucci, Mike Figgis, Jiri Menzel, Istvan Szabo, Claire Denis, Volker Schlondorff, Michael Radford and Jean-Luc Godard, among others. One of the short films will be shown every Sunday through Feb. 23 at 10:45 p.m. on the cable network.

Far from feeling restricted by the firm time structure of the assignment, the directors seemed to relish the opportunity to explore a single idea with complete artistic freedom, using some of the most advanced digital equipment. Several have said they used the opportunity provided by "Ten Minutes Older" to develop ideas they can use in feature-length projects.

The series kicks off Sunday with Figgis' experimental "About Time-2," which explores the discontinuity of memory. Just as he did with his 2000 film, "Timecode," Figgis uses a quadrant screen to explore the past and future through the present. The film was shot in digital video in an unbroken 10 minutes with four cameras in four connected rooms, with each room set in a different era.

Getting involved in the project was a win-win situation for Figgis, who is perhaps best known for directing Nicolas Cage to an Oscar in "Leaving Las Vegas."

"It is the sort of thing as a filmmaker, if someone offers you something where you have a certain degree or freedom and you have a certain budget, and you are going to be in with some other directors you admire, that becomes really interesting."

Making "About Time-2" also gave him the opportunity to experiment with small video cameras and a new rig for them, which he designed and has since patented. "I was trying out a lot of the technical things that I had come up with as possibilities but didn't have the time to do on 'Timecode,' " Figgis said.

"The rig looks like a steering wheel from a racing car with the camera right in the middle and you load it up with lights and microphones. It functions sort of like a Steadicam. I invented it because the stability of a hand-held small camera is something that really worried me. That seasick approach is often synonymous with digital film production."

With the rig, "not only can you stabilize the camera, you can use it as a shelf for a unit. I worked with a very young designer, Ben Wilson. When we suddenly had a start date, I told him we have to have four of these rigs ready for the shoot."

Though "Timecode" was improvised and decidedly experimental, Figgis says, "Halfway through the shoot, I was reminded I was making a studio picture despite the fact we were having fun and it was terribly interesting. I had to start focusing on the fact it was a feature-length film. I did have a responsibility to the studio. So it's very rare you get offered something where they say we want you to go out and be an experimental filmmaker."

Radford's film, "Addicted to the Stars," which premieres Feb. 2, is a touching sci-fi drama starring Daniel Craig as an astronaut who returns to Earth after being in space 80 years only to discover he's aged just 10 minutes. Not only has the world changed since he left, but his son (Charles Simon) is 90 years old.

He found the experience "quite good fun. Usually when you make a short movie, it is when you are a film student and you don't have the techniques and stuff at your disposal, which you do have now."

Like Figgis, Radford has been moving into the improvisational area with his feature films. His last film, the low-budget 2001 drama, "Dancing at the Blue Iguana," was entirely improvised. But "Addicted to the Stars" is much more traditional and gave Radford his first chance to work with special effects, which he describes as akin to "watching paint dry. It takes days on end."

The film is dedicated to Simon, who died of pneumonia last May at the age of 93.

"He was the oldest working British actor," says Radford. "He was in the peak of health. But he smoked like a chimney. It was very sad. Suddenly three or four days [after the filming], he died."

Coincidentally, the day after he completed "Il Postino," its star and Radford's good friend, Massimo Troisi, died of heart failure. "It happens to me all the time," says Radford with a sigh. "I hope to goodness [Simon's death] had nothing to do with us."

Radford would love to do another short film, "but it depends on if you have a good ideas. I think they have to be very, very precise and, generally speaking, I think you have to be accessible. I think this story is a good one and, like all good stories, it makes you think about things."

Schlondorff's film, "Enlightenment," which airs Feb. 9, is a radical departure from his serious dramatic films like "The Tin Drum" and "Death of a Salesman." He admits that it's simply a "joke." The film is described as an "entomological" journey across the background of East / West Germany. "We kept the punch line, our joke, until the last minute," says Schlondorff.

The German director eagerly agreed to be involved in the project because he has been in development hell for the last few years on his dramatic historical epic "Pope Joan," which he hopes will go into production next summer. "Enlightenment" gave him a chance to do a film quickly and efficiently and, as it did for Figgis, gave him the opportunity to experiment with new film equipment he hopes to employ in "Pope Joan."

"Ten Minutes Older: The Cello" screened recently at the Toronto Film Festival with several of the directors in attendance. "It was a wonderful way of meeting other directors and talking to them," says Schlondorff. "It is like a friendly competition. It's like you are around a dinner table and everybody is going to tell a story."

As for what "The Cello" refers to, that remains a mystery: The instrument is as absent from this series as the trumpet was from the first.


'Ten Minutes Older: The Cello'

Where: Showtime

When: Sundays at 10:45 p.m.

Ends: Feb. 23

Rating: TVPG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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