Monday, October 15, 2012

Primer (Movie)

Before I begin allow me to offer a warning: If you do not know what Primer is about, consider yourself blessed to be able to watch it with no preconceptions of what you are seeing.  Do not look it up on IMDb or Wikipedia, do not talk to friends about it, simply go out, rent the film and watch it.  More so than any other film of which I am aware, it is important to watch Primer for the first time without knowing what it is about.  I won't tell much about the actual plot here. 

I recently decided that Primer (2004) is my favorite movie, dethroning Groundhog Day.  Anyone who knows me well has heard me talk about this movie.  I post about it, I think about it, I quote it. I have seen it thirteen or fourteen times and I would gladly watch it again.  Primer, to me, is just about the perfect film.

Primer was a labor of love.  The man behind the masterpiece, Shane Carruth (Writer, Director, Lead Actor, Composer, Producer, and Editor of the film), began with a dual idea of what he wanted to portray.  a)  He wanted to present a more realistic depiction of technological invention, having been disappointed over the years by how far the movies depicting invention had strayed from the reality of it, and b) to write a morality play about the acquisition of power.  The purity of this genesis is to be applauded, if more filmmakers began their films with these kinds of ethereal goals (as opposed to, "I want a movie with good explosions" or, "I want a movie that would be fun for a young couple to watch together") I think we'd see a lot fewer achingly predictable films.

Carruth was not a movie maker before the creation of Primer, he was (and probably still is) an engineer. Perhaps this is a part of what makes the film so comfortable about being non-conventional.  Unfortunately, despite the film's critical success he has yet to make another (although Arrested-Developmentesque talk about another film has floated around for the past few years).  Primer was produced for the meager sum of $7,000--which is not even enough to film a decent commercial these days--and yet the film looks flawless.

Aaron looks on as Abe drops little circles of paper on the plates.

The plot of Primer is beyond complex.  It is not the kind of film that twists the mind a little bit, but becomes clear by the end or after a second viewing (such as Seven Pounds or Inception, which I like to think of as "Primer Lite").  The film intensely challenges the attention and intelligence of its audience.  The characters (engineers themselves) speak confident technical jargon one strains to keep up with.  The events of the film do not unfold as a clever brain teaser like so many other "cerebral" movies, rather the scenes pan out in frustrating confliction with one another, mirroring the confusion the characters are feeling, creating an near-impossible web of convolution and interest that preys on the mind.  Though the subject matter is not horror fanfare, the film often takes on sinister notes of dread, because we fear what we don't understand. 

The music (again, composed and performed by Carruth) is beautiful and unearthly.  Moving from more concrete acoustic instruments to fragile synthetic sounds.  It would have been easy to just through in a few notes and low noises and call it good, but the more I hear it, the more I realize the music was as carefully thought out as the rest of the film.

Primer is humorous and entertaining, the acting and cinematography is superb, but all of that is swallowed up in our need to understand what is happening on screen.  It can seem more laborious than fun to watch Primer, but once you begin to see what it is about, how its various parts connect, and how many vital scenes are implied but never shown, you start to feel that the tremendous payoff is worth the work.  The ending alone opens the door to an imaginative frenzy of possibilities in the mind of the astute viewer.

I'm not going to pretend that there are no flaws in the movie.  A few of the lines fall a little flat on the part of the actors, and some viewers might feel cheated about a few of the "side-effects" shown not being adequately explained.  In one or two shots you can see a boom mike, if you look very closely.  My biggest complaint with the film (which really is not a serious infraction) is that I think it would be difficult to know the film was meant to be a morality play if you didn't know it was intended as such.  Carruth mentions this in the DVD commentary, but I don't feel like it's really possible to know that's a main point of this film just by watching it.  But every film has at least a few weak points. 

If you are the kind of person who is only interested in a movie that helps you relax or that demands your attention with surface level twists, conflicts, and gags then Primer is probably not the movie for you.  Certainly, there are people who hate it, who see it as a gross waste of time.  I've read several reviews regarding the film as "nonsense" of one sort or another, I assure you that is not the case.  If you like art to challenge you, if you are interested in the experimental, the strange, (if you liked Faulkner's "As I lay Dying" in other words...) then I definitely recommend watching Primer several times, preferably back-to-back.  I suggest watching with the subtitles on, as the characters sometimes talk over each other and speak quickly.

As you unlock the treasures of this film you might find yourself asking, "How could I ever have been satisfied by finding out that Bruce Willis was dead?"

"I was dead the whole time, sry!!"

If you have already seen Primer, click here for some of my thoughts on particular scenes.

-MA 10.15.12

P.S.  The internet is trying to tell me "confliction" isn't a word.  No matter.


  1. Ryan Martineau said:
    This was a very good movie. I need to see it again.

  2. I was so happy to find this now available on Netflix!