Primer is a perfect example of how the making of a film can influence my perception of what the film itself really is. And I struggle with this notion. It’s an argument of Respect vs. Skill. As in, if I respect the hell out of how a movie was made, should my affection for the film itself be more substantial? On one end, I think a film is a film, and should be judged as such. No outside influences (including the impressive struggles it took to get a film made) should alter how I feel about what is on the screen. But, other times, I find the backstory simply too remarkable to ignore.
To make sense of all this, I did not like Shane Carruth’s Primer the first time I saw it. The film tells the story and how four coworkers collectively research and develop inventions when not working as corporate engineers. Soon into the film, Abe (David Sullivan) discovers that he may have accidentally created a small time travel device, in which he can send himself back in time. He tells his friend, Aaron (Carruth), and the two branch off and start working on the project by themselves.
From there, the film’s narrative structure becomes more or less unhinged. I’m not going to attempt to make sense of it here, but Abe and Aaron’s time-traveled doubles appear (and disappear, and reappear), the stock market is toyed with, relationships are fractured, possible moments of violence are altered, and so on. When I finished my first viewing (which was roughly a year ago), I was left with a notion of indifference. I valued the effort of everyone involved, but was lost amongst the confusion. But then it wouldn’t go away. So I watched it again. Liked it more. Watched it again. And now I’ve spent the past week or so reading as much about it as I can, becoming more impressed with each passing article.
I’ve been reading about how Carruth wrote, directed, produced, shot, edited, scored, distributed and starred in Primer using $7,000 of his own money. I’ve discovered how Carruth taught himself physics to make sense of the script, how he abandoned the project three times out of frustration while in post-production. And how the film made it to Sundance, was picked up by a production company, profited 60 times its budget, and has since attained cult status. This, you see, fascinates me to no end.
Primer’s cultural influence has been impressively vast given its modest execution. Dedicated fans have spent hours dissecting the film’s many layers and complex timeline. Blogs have been devoted to the film’s narrative, “definitive” timelines have been published, then edited, then republished – hell, even the film’s plot description on its Wikipedia page gives me a headache (but seriously, props to whoever the hell wrote that).
Time travel movies rarely work for me. I think the very idea of time travel itself presents too many plot holes and contradictions to keep up with. One of the main reasons I never got fully into Rian Johnson’s Looper (which, incidentally, Carruth was a technical advisor on) was because the characters skirted the complexity of time travel by verbally saying they weren’t going to talk about. That’s too easy to me, but hell, what do I know?
My point is, Primer doesn’t skirt. It talks in words I don’t understand, expands on areas of physics I will never be able to comprehend, and confidently understands time travel, even if its audience does not. Confidence. That’s exactly what Primer has. Its characters are reserved, intelligent, and never arrogant about what they know (and, just as importantly, don’t know). Carruth has said he purposefully neglected the use of expository dialogue to explain things, and had no interest in clarifying the film’s time travel accuracy. That’s a ballsy move. And, in my opinion, the risk paid off.
Sure, my reasons for appreciating Primer extend far beyond the actual film itself. I respect Shane Carruth and the great, control-freaked lengths he went to ensure that Primer was seen. And make no mistake, this most certainly is a film that deserves to be seen. Probably more than once. A-