Primer (2004, USA, Carruth)
A little Memento mixed with a smidgen La Jetee, Primer is the first film I’ve seen since David Lynch’s nearly-impenetrable but clearly-brilliant Mulholland Dr. that I have wanted to re-watch IMMEDIATELY. I have restrained myself from doing so, and this review is based upon a single viewing, so forgive me if I get some things wrong; this is just the sorta film that will do that to you.
So for starters we have Aaron (writer/director Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), a pair of ambitious and industrious 20-something engineer-types who work 50 hour weeks in the office, then spend most of their remaining waking hours toiling in Aaron’s garage on their next Great Scheme, a prototype for Who the Hell Knows What. I must confess that with only a smattering of undergraduate experience in the most vaguely of scientific endeavors that I have pretty much zero idea what Aaron, Abe an their two increasingly out-of-the-loop partners Robert (Casey Gooden) and Phillip (Anand Upadhyaya) are talking about for the first ten minutes of this film. But the beauty of Primer is that it matters far less that you get the jargon and much more that you dig the big picture, which in this case is yer standard scientist at odds with questions of personal ethics sort of thing. However, Primer is anything but standard in its approach and execution. The most exciting and promising debut effort of this already pretty decent year for films, Primer is one whacked-out mindfuck, a discombobulating, thrilling, challenging and meticulous filmmaking exercise.
Revealing too much of the plot would run the risk of ruining much of the impact of the first-time viewing impact, so I will limit myself to noting that Aaron and Abe make an unexpected and startling discovery while tinkering in the garage, and it is the manner in which they deal with this discovery that gives the film much of its fascination. Primer takes a Kubrickian interest in the way that technology de-humanizes its "masters" and gives a stark lesson in how we have progressed materially and intellectually, but remain largely children emotionally and ethically. Aaron and Abe may have the ingenuity to make a startling discovery, but lack the integrity or grounding necessary to use it wisely (which is to say, probably not at all.) And once they tinker around with their discovery, the partners find that there’s no going back. Okay, that’s not strictly true, given how they end up messing with the time-space continuum; due to the Faustian deal the pair make with themselves, time becomes a commodity to be bought, traded and sold. Regardless, neither Abe nor Aaron prove capable of harnessing the forces they’ve unleashed both within and without, and their steady downward spiral proves to be dreadfully compelling. Is theirs the fate of all clever and ambitious people who lack the moral compass to properly direct their energies and intelligence?
Filmed on 16mm, Primer manages to find a distinctive and interesting look, somewhere between the graininess of pulp noir and bleached, washed out look of a low budget independent film, which this most certainly is, given its $7,000 budget. Carruth, who also wrote the film’s score among his many duties here, has made a film that relies on ideas and moral conundrums for its impact, rather than snazzy audio-visual, computer-generated effects, which makes sense from a budgetary standpoint, but is also just a little ironic, given the central role of technology in the film’s subject matter. While for many the film’s elliptical narrative, which leaps around like an ion on crack, not to mention Aaron’s from-the-other-side riddling voice-over narration, creates an oft-maddening puzzle, for those up to the challenge this film harbors hidden rewards. Perhaps more importantly, even if its science doesn’t add up, the story itself does somehow (almost magically) manage to cohere.
Then again, I’ve only seen Primer once, so I could be talking through my sleeve here. After all, there is much I have yet to forget. Give me time.