Saturday, January 15, 2011

Movies: Primer

Shane Carruth only needed $7,000 and a few years to give us the headache-inducing Primer; perhaps the process gave him a headache as well, because he hasn't given us another film since. Of course, things take time when you are the writer, director, producer, cinematographer, and editor, not to mention lead actor, and composer to boot, for the project.

The film's aesthetic is as spare and minimalist as the budget implies. Nearly every frame of film shot was used. Sets include a cheap apartment's kitchen and garage, a motel, and a storage facility. The palate is gray and taupe. Even the dialogue is delivered as if there was a surcharge for any complete sentences delivered audibly, so instead, the script is filled with vague technical mutterings. The camera nonchalantly observes, more like a security device than an auteur's intentioned frame.

All of this minimalism makes room for an impressively baroque timeline of events. Primer is a film about time-travel, with some of the same concerns as Back to the Future, like risking encountering your double, but none of the sweeping historical gestures. The box (not so flashy, compared to the DeLorean) can only take you as far back as the number of hours you're willing to spend stretching out inside, sipping from an oxygen tank: you turn it on, say, Friday at 8 AM, go do whatever you want all day, come back at 6 PM, and crawl inside. You lay there for ten hours, and when you get out, it's 8 AM again on Friday. There's not much you can do in this window of time, except trade stocks based on stats from the evening paper, which is what Abe and Aaron, accidental inventors of the box, do. But things are strange and confusing. Sometimes Aaron, listening to a radio with one earphone, dictates what Abe is about to say. But then sometimes, Abe says something different. One day, Aaron's ear begins bleeding. Later, Abe's ear begins bleeding. There might be two Aarons, and one of them may have drugged the other one and kept him hidden in the attic; these doubles remind us of the nefarious ghosts in the new Solaris, posing as the "real" selves, whether or not those selves are made of any stuff more real than the double selves.

My understanding is that Primer takes a good three or four viewings to even get a basic handle on the timeline of events, and I don't know that it aesthetically could sustain my attention through that number of viewings. But it is an interesting puzzle, and I prefer it to other deconstructionist timeline films (e.g. Memento). For $7,000, it is an extremely accomplished headache.

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