August 1, 2007

Movies for Grown-Ups: Primer

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

Primer (2004)
Written and directed by Shane Carruth

(Sorry this took so long to post, by the way -- this was a hard review to write!)

For those who don't know, my involvement with the underground arts began back in high school, because of the punk community (such as it was) of early-'80s St. Louis, Missouri. (And by the way, for anyone interested in seeing what such times were actually like, check out sometime the criminally underrated SLC Punk!, a movie that mirrors my own experiences so exactly that it's sometimes scary.) And if there's one thing I would say about the underground arts then versus now, it'd be this -- that never in a million years would we have guessed back then that, one day in the future, underground artists would be able to create projects in their homes that from a technical standpoint are literally as good as ones made by multinational corporations with billions of dollars at their disposal. I mean, don't get me wrong, the mere fact that one could self-publish in the '80s in the first place was a revelation to us, one that my friends and I took full advantage of whenever possible; but let's face it, unlike our modern times, not a single person back then was ever going to mistake our crappy xeroxed zines and third-generation cassette tapes for something that came from Time Warner.

Primer, the movie

It's something I kept thinking of the other day, while watching the absolutely mind-blowing 2004 indie-film hit Primer, which officially now counts as the only trippy science-fiction epic in history to ever be made for a grand total budget of US$7,000 (3500 pounds, 5000 euros), and without a single special-effects shot in sight. No, that's not a typo -- this entire movie really did get made for seven thousand dollars (with most of that money ironically going towards film stock), with the final product being virtually indistinguishable from a film by a major studio costing tens of millions more. It's an astounding movie, one that would go on to win the Grand Jury Prize at that year's Sundance film festival; but even more importantly than that, it's a true success story from the often frustrating world of the underground arts, concrete proof that when you want it bad enough, we now live in an age where such a thing can actually be pulled off.

Primer, the movie

The film is the result of one-man production company Shane Carruth (who serves here not only as the writer and director, but also star, producer, editor and even soundtrack composer), who has a background that will be familiar to many CCLaP readers; until recently a corporate hardware engineer in suburban Texas, apparently Carruth went through a bit of a career crisis around his 30th birthday, coming out the other side convinced that he wanted to be a filmmaker now instead of a corporate hardware engineer, despite not knowing even the first thing about how to actually make a movie or even write a script. So he sat down and did what any good engineer would do, which was to teach himself filmmaking, one topic at a time and one lesson at a time over a three-year period, constantly reworking his story even while learning about cameras and film for the first time. And then when he was ready, he put together a technical crew of five, asked various friends of his to serve as the cast, and started shooting at the various Dallas locations available to him (including his own real-life home, where the majority of the film takes place), even convincing his parents to serve as the production's official caterers.

Primer, the movie

And this is really the first of many brilliant things about Primer; that Carruth intimately understood the limitations he was working with in such a situation (no heavy-duty lights, actors without a lick of formal training, etc), and so created a story that specifically takes advantage of such limitations instead of fighting against them. It is in fact the story of two frustrated corporate engineers in a unnamed Texas suburb, Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), who during the day toil for a soulless Motorola-type megacompany and at night run their own high-tech startup out of Aaron's garage, along with two other buddies of theirs named Robert (Casey Gooden) and Phillip (Anand Upadhyaya). It's a situation that's going to be very familiar to some of you entrepreneurs out there -- slaving away at midnight, still dressed in their day clothes, holding envelope-licking parties around the kitchen table, seriously considering taking apart the refrigerator because they can't afford to buy copper tubing for their latest prototype.

Primer, the movie

The boys are in fact trying these days to invent the machine they believe will finally make them rich, a shipping container that uses magnetic superconductors to actually screw with the laws of gravity, thus making the contents of that shipping crate lighter and therefore cheaper to ship in the first place (a concept which believe it or not is real, and that actual scientists are trying to perfect as we speak -- and psst, by the way, all you fans of the television show Lost, is also the leading fan theory these days behind the mysterious explosion of "the Hatch" two seasons ago). And indeed, the guys actually succeed, at which point they accidentally discover an even more profound side-effect to the project -- that the superconductors not only screw with gravity, but also with the space-time continuum itself, accidentally creating what they think might just be humanity's very first working time machine.

Primer, the movie

So of course the very first thing that Aaron and Abe do is completely cut the other two business partners out of the loop; specifically, they claim that the garage needs to be fumigated, so that they'll have the time necessary to move the machine into one of those "U-Store-It" warehouses on the industrial edge of town, without ever bothering to tell Robert and Phillip what they accidentally have on their hands in the first place. And indeed, as Carruth has admitted in interviews, this is the main theme of Primer and what led to the invention of the time-travel plot device to begin with -- that what he was really interested in exploring in this movie is the concept of trust between human beings, and how this trust changes depending on what's at stake. It's something I think that a lot of people overlook in this movie, in their zeal to figure out the puzzle-like machinations of the plot itself, although they shouldn't; because it really is the issue of trust that drives this entire story forward, and the elusive nature of that trust as things get more and more serious.

Primer, the movie

Because that's the thing that really starts making this movie fascinating; that about halfway through, they discover that yet another person out there, a fancy-pants venture capitalist in their town that they've been trying to woo into being an investor, has found out about the time machine himself, and has ended up lapsing into a coma because of not understanding how to use it correctly. And see, one of them had to have told this guy about the machine, since they are the only two on the planet to know about it, although they've both made a pact to keep the machine's existence a secret; but this blabbing happens in the future, meaning that neither Abe nor Aaron know which one of the two actually broke the trust between them, or why it was broken in the first place.

Primer, the movie

The incident sets off a whole chain of complicated plot machinations; one of them hops back to the past and builds his own secret "failsafe" time machine, then another hops forward to steal this failsafe machine, and before you know it you have no idea how many time machines actually exist, or even how many "time clones" of Abe and Aaron are running around central Texas in the first place. And this is a real problem for the two, a potentially lethal problem, because they still don't know what the actual side-effects of all this time travel are either; for example, every so often the two will bleed from their ears after a successful trip, while in other cases their handwriting regresses to a childlike scrawl (caused, Carruth hints, by what's known in theoretical physics as the "recursive paradox," basically the biological version of making a xerox of a xerox of a xerox of a xerox, and how the quality of that image degrades with each generation). As the two keep inventing yet more and more complicated schemes to outwit the other, they also start creating more and more screw-ups within the space-time continuum, leading both themselves and humanity to God only knows where by the end.

Primer, the movie

Now, let's just be honest for a moment: the plot of this movie will make your brain hurt, and even I have to admit that I was completely baffled by the time the thing was over (especially when you consider that these shipping containers are actually collapsable on top of everything else, meaning that you can put a working one inside of another working one -- ouch, my brain!). But the immensely complicated plot is not the point of this movie, not the point at all, and frankly it pisses me off when I see online reviewers judging the merits of Primer based on that alone. No, the real point of this movie is two-fold, and taps into deep and primal things about the human condition that have been true for thousands of years: that it's always a mistake when humans believe they have attained a mastery over nature; and that people will turn on each other when there's enough at stake, no matter who they are and what relationship they had before. Primer is an exquisite update of the classic mad-scientist story, and I am so incredibly glad that Carruth believed in himself enough to actually get this movie made. Needless to say, I am highly looking forward to the next mindjob he has in store for us.

Out of 10:
Writing: 8.9
Acting: 7.5
Directing: 8.3
Cinematography: 6.4
Overall: 9.1

Random notes:
--Carruth deliberately used outdated cellphones and laptops during the production of Primer, as well as deliberately adding false information about that year's NCAA basketball tournament, specifically so that people wouldn't be able to associate the movie with a specific year.

--Curious about the film that most influenced Carruth while writing this script? Well, according to him, believe it or not, it was Watergate drama All the President's Men, where apparently Carruth fell in love with the idea of releasing slow bits of random information over the course of the movie, all of them adding up to a bigger and bigger story by the end.

--Oh, and for those who don't already know, the Wikipedia entry on this movie provides an excellent overview of not only the film's plot but also how the time machine supposedly works. Did you know, for example, that there are a total of nine distinct timelines on display here, over the course of an hour and a half? Neither did I!

Best viewed: Twice. And with a quantum physicist and a couple of aspirin, if such things are available to you.

Next on my queue list: Pan's Labyrinth, the astonishing fantastical tale from horror master Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Blade II), and the film that finally earned him a little respect from both critics and the Hollywood industry. And don't forget, I've already reviewed one of del Toro's earliest films as well, the crappy low-budget Mimic, for those who would like to get caught up beforehand.

Read even more about Primer: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:48 PM, August 1, 2007. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |