Bad Timing, one of Nicolas Roeg’s more extreme fragmentation fests, raises an issue larger than itself. The story of the tumultuous relationship between Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell) and Dr. Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel), the film unfolds in a complexly nonlinear fashion, flashing back from the night Flaherty is rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. As the surgeons struggle to save her, a police inspector (Harvey Keitel) tries to piece together what happened to put her life at risk.
That investigation raises the larger issue. The usual argument for non-linear story-telling is that its associative logic more accurately reflects the way we think and experience events. Linearity, in contrast, rationalizes life by ordering it. The resulting lucidity is purchased at the price of ignoring what exceeds the rational while making it neatly explicable.
Underlying this argument is an implicit someone experiencing the kaleidoscope of associative imagery. Otherwise there is no motivation for the non-linear development aside from formal necessity. Many of the cuts in Bad Timing, for example, join one action to a similar one in a different time and place, establishing a relationship that has no logical purpose beyond the juxtaposition. To be anything more than surface ornamentation, in other words, associative logic must be inherently subjective because it turns all experience into a question of perceiving the arrangement. To have insight, the ordering of events or images must externalize the structuring consciousness of the perceiver. The results are his or her experience, no more, no less.
Combining the non-linear with an objective criminal investigation inevitably creates problems. Put simply, who “owns” the images in Bad Timing? Garfunkel? Keitel? Russell? Any or all? Sometimes cues make it clear whose vision we are experiencing, but they are commingled so thoroughly that eventually it is difficult to view any moment as reliably objective. (The last shot, in fact, implies events may belong to none of them.) Then there is the further problem of how people on screen can be in their memories. (Unless standing in front of a mirror, we are always absent from our own perspective.) And if you cannot be sure whose version you’re experiencing, it is impossible to interpret, explain or judge.
Roeg’s best work overcomes these intractable puzzles with a flow of imagery so compelling that we simply float with the camera without worrying much about what can be trusted. That method can produce a great visual experience, but it fails miserably to explain the pathologies in Bad Timing. Obfuscating technique applied to seedy, often tediously repetitive content is not insight. In effect, Bad Timing is less about the unfathomable depths of human relationships than a demonstration of how to turn neuroses into a Klimt-like lapidary mosaic. (Klimt and Schiele’s paintings are a running motif.) At the level of observation and execution, Bad Timing is strikingly original, but the situation feels like little more than a shopworn case study, grimy and tattered at the edges from too many sweaty palms.