warn you: there WILL be spoilers in this article.
I bought Primer on spec a few days ago because it said “Donnie Darko for grown-ups” on the cover, which prompted me to read the back, which made me buy it. I watched it the next day in the evening after a good curry and during a good bottle of Chilean cabernet sauvignon. I then immediately watched it again with the director’s commentary switched on, such was my fascination, frustration and appreciation of its achievement. I’ve spent the last few days scouring messageboards for theories and ideas, and I fully intend to watch it again all the way through, possibly with a notebook, within the next few days.
Time travel movies, like zombie movies, are a guilty pleasure of mine. I don’t own many on DVD for fear of looking like a geek, but they’re something that I relish watching when no one who I might need to impress is looking. I even got my girlfriend to like Dawn of the Dead. She still won’t budge on Groundhog Day though. Donnie Darko’s just about acceptable. The Back to the Future movies only really work as Saturday morning fare. 12 Monkeys is cool but messy (Brad’s best performance OH BUT THEY’RE ALL THE SAME). La Jetee obviously stands up to considerably more scrutiny than some others (Time Bandits, that bizarre French kids flick with Depardieu in it, numerous other pieces of ill-conceived sci-fi claptrap) but it’s still, at base, a film about traveling in time and thus very, very silly, no matter how exquisitely beautiful it might be.
Some background on Primer before we begin. Shane Carruth is a maths graduate who had worked in engineering for a few years when he decided to jack it in and write instead. Realising he wanted to work with words as well as pictures, he taught himself how to make a film, in a very methodical, mathematician-like way. He started with screenwriting and went through storyboarding, sound editing, producing, directing, operating a camera; in short, everything. He spent two years writing the plot. He refused to script any individual scenes until he had permission to shoot them on the locations that he needed, be that his mum’s living room, his brother’s apartment, an office building, a hotel, or a well-known American storage company warehouse.
He knew he had no money, so instead of shooting multiple takes of each scene he insisted on getting the actors (which, by the time they shot, included himself in one of the two lead roles) to rehearse each scene to perfection, and then shooting it just once unless anyone made a mistake. For a 74 minute movie (discounting credits) they shot just 80 minutes of footage. I’ve worked on short films, 15 minutes or so in length, as both actor and assistant director, and we’ve shot four times that much footage before editing down to a fifth of the length. Primer was shot on 16mm film—had they shot it like a normal movie, out-takes, feeds and all, they’d have spent more than the $7,000 that made up the ENTIRE BUDGET just on celluloid. When I was younger I did a lot of stage work, where you rehearse and rehearse and rehearse until perfect and then you perform it once, and you perform it right, in front of an audience. Over the last few years I’ve done bits and bobs of digital video editing work, editing down huge amounts of footage to get a useable few minutes (or seconds in some cases). Despite this frugality and cottage-industry mentality, Primer still manages to look brilliant—deliberately a touch grainy to evoke a sense of dislocated timelessness, with a number of great shots and mise-en-scene juxtapositions that make you nod appreciatively. Shane Carruth to my mind is a genius simply for how efficiently he used a camera and film stock on this movie, never mind the actual story itself.
Primer’s plot is simple: two friends accidentally invent a time machine while working in their garage on another engineering project outside of day-job hours, use it to go back in time and play the stocks to get a little cash money on the sly, slowly realise the power of the device in their possession and then rapidly see their long-term friendship spiral out of control as they enter a confusing, psychologically damaging game of second-guessing each other. The devil, as they say, is in the details. The two protagonists, Abe and Aaron, are posited as boyish men touched by accidental genius, existing in a world that tries to recreate after-school clubs replete with cod-uniforms and secret codes—the techno-babble, all apparently scientifically accurate, that adorns the opening ten minutes may leave non-engineers scratching their heads, but it builds character and scene efficiently and effectively.
The time machine itself also has a little more thought to its construction and operation than that fucking Delorean—a side-effect of trying to build a mini superconductor, you turn it on, leave it for a few hours, come back, get in it, wait a while (there’s some maths to tell you how long) and get out at the moment it was turned on in the first place. No heading for Jurassic times and bagging a dinosaur or scooting to the future to pick up a hoverboard; just repeating a day over and taking advantage of what you’ve learnt in the meantime.
The problems don’t arise from paradoxes (although they do come into it) but from ego, from striving to control the device and, more importantly, the people around the device. Abe, who first realises the potential of their discovery, prepares a failsafe machine, started before the first machine he shows Aaron to enable him, if things go awry, to go back to before he reveals the whole kaboodle to his friend. Of course Aaron himself discovers this, as was bound to happen, and promptly makes himself another time machine, takes it back through the failsafe, turns it on before the others, and starts playing out days over and over again. Why? That’s less clear. A little bit of ego power trip, a little bit of scientific curiosity (hell, natural human curiosity), a little bit of bloody mindedness and a little bit of the humanistic desire to do right by his friends by helping them have a better day.
Things get really out of hand though when we realise that Aaron has somehow contributed to a mutual friend’s discomfort / fear / death (delete according to timeline—by my count there are about 8 or 9 at least) and the two friends then each panic and try to set things right. Witness Aaron drugging his clone in another timeline and hiding him in the attic, Abe collapsing, bleeding from the ear and not being able to handwrite properly anymore due to recursion screwing up his system because he’s a copy of a copy of a copy, Aaron physically fighting himself… I used to think kids with just one in-ear headphone in place were rude and inattentive—now I’m concerned that this is the third time they’ve lived through today and that they’re listening to a recording they made of all the conversations they’re meant to have today so that they can repeat today numerous times in order to alter one small thing without fucking up the space-time continuum for everyone else in the world… Does that make sense? It will the second time you make it through Primer, when you’re sitting rapt with your partner in time-travel and cinema, each trying to spot which version of which day this scene is, and which Aaron is talking to which Abe and who has the upper hand on who… By the climax and denouement there are several versions of each protagonist all existing within the same moment of the same timeline… The last fifteen minutes of Primer, when metaphorical shit hits metaphorical fan a hundred different times and ways all in the same instance of time, are amongst the most confusing and satisfying moments of cinema that I’ve seen for a long, long time.
When J T. Ramsay originally reviewed Primer for Stylus he gave it a big fat F, criticising it on moral and philosophical grounds because the lead characters were selfish, greedy, unemotional scientists who didn’t consider the philosophical and emotional impact of their actions. I dispute that judgment. Aaron and Abe to me were friends first and scientists second; we see them doing things for each other out of a bond of fraternal love that has been built for years, but we also see them get excited together, an honest, innocent and truly human excitement based upon the thrill of discovery and potential. Science and art are not at odds with each other, and neither side should distrust the other because they do not understand their methods—both are working towards the same goal, which is making existence a little easier, a little more interesting, a little more beautiful.