by Robert Hornak
“Meticulous, yes. Methodical, educated; they were these things… Like anyone, they varied. There were days of mistakes and laziness and in-fighting, and there were days, good days, when by anyone’s judgment they would have to be considered clever… They took from their surroundings what was needed and made of it something more.” These lines, which are in voiceover, are spoken by a version of one of our main characters, Aaron, in a voice mail to another version of Aaron, referring to a yet earlier version of Aaron and his friends. It seems to me, Aaron could be describing the activities of the characters, or he could be talking about the making of the movie itself. The two are parallel in more than one way, not the least of which is the time-shuffling of film production, wherein scenes are never shot in the order of the final film, and wherein it’s usually left to one person, the editor, to try and make sense of the jumble. In the spirit of the confusion created during that process, as well as in a time travel story, I re-read all of what follows and note the unmoored, herky-jerky quality of the ideas. Let it be my homage to the movie, when what it really is, is me grappling with a movie I don’t fully understand, and probably never will, but respect and enjoy immensely. I believe my first words upon viewing it ten years ago were: “I would sell all I have and follow this man as a disciple.” I’ve cooled somewhat since that heady day, but the love remains for this often maligned, often dismissed, but just as often overly-adulated little indie time travel experiment.
First let me say, time travel movies are a dime a dozen – or cheaper, depending on when you go back to. There’s been a ton of them over the decades, but it seems to me there’s been a tremendous uptick this century. Perhaps it’s the ubiquitous accessibility of movie-making equipment – the same people that would’ve fired up a trusty Underwood in the middle of the last century, today fire up a Red and Final Cut Pro and add their spin to the glut. Sirens of Titan becomes 41. But why so much time travel? Why does everybody, including me, have one or two or three of them that they can’t wait to impress the world with? At the risk of grandiosity, and/or stating the obvious, I can only think it’s some kind of market demand born from the cold tyranny of The Now. Nobody wants to be here… right now. I assume I’m pretty much like everybody, my head a clouded mix of Regret and Hope – that is, the Past and the Future, combining in a constantly shifting ratio. Regretting either the pain of mistakes made or – another kind of regret – wishing for the return of that which was better; meanwhile, hoping the future’s not as bad as I suspect it’ll be, or at least hoping that it remains as good as it is now. However you slice it, of the three – past, now, future – now is the most tangible, yet the most elusive. It’s just easier to want to escape the law that requires every moment we experience to simultaneously build toward a rarely-controllable future and lock into an unchangeable amber brick that’s as irresistible to gaze back upon as a blazing pillar of salt. And, for now, fiction is the only means we have to break that law.
Of course, none of this metaphysical hooey was on the minds of the main characters in Primer – at least not as the story begins. No, our entry is all-practical, all-concrete. This 2004 movie exists in the wake of the late-90s dot-com bubble, and our four players – Aaron, Abe, Philip, Robert – are mixing it up in Aaron’s garage, the über-nerd version of starting up your own band, trying to come up with the next big thing, hanging onto hope of success by shotgunning prototypes of this and that into the entrepreneurial sea. Much like the movie itself, they’re trying to make something out of not much money – director, writer, producer, star Shane Carruth stands humbly by his claim of a $7,000 budget, a number fully believable when you see the original 16mm blown up to 35. In their white shirts and ties, with (at first) no discernable jobs, they appear as fake businessmen, nobodies wanting desperately to grow into the role, but hobbled by lack of success so far, and minus the confidence of the successful – a fear edging toward silly as they whisper-argue over who will approach Abe’s girlfriend’s dad for venture money. While they might not display a sure hand at fundraising, they are more than confident in what they know. So confident, and Carruth so okay with weeding out the weak in the audience early, that they don’t bother dumbing down any of their super-specific, scientific vocab for us. And this is a strength of the movie. For those with the patience, it’s the way into the mystery of what these guys are stumbling onto. As they slide in and out of chummy ribbing, inside jokes, and miscommunications, it’s in an opaque, overlapping argot (if Altman made an industrial training video) that’s at first frustrating, but soon is as comforting as white noise. The hubris that defies the budgetary restrictions of Primer is that it casts the audience as eavesdroppers on this off-handedly spoken jargon that leads you to a premise you believe because you trust that the characters, down to the man, know what they’re talking about.
So, in the midst of their concentrated dabbling, and from a boxy, table-top contraption built of spare parts, Aaron and Abe accidentally create a self-sustaining energy that lives off some kind of feed-back loop from a minimal power source. They can smell the money already. Once they’ve wrangled a broad guess at possible future applications, they sit on it, unable to move beyond “what is it?” But they’re capitalists enough to know that the next move is kicking unknowing Philip and Robert off the island. It’s that circle-the-wagons impulse you get when you’re a little kid and you find something you think is cool, but you don’t know what it is, and you know in your gut you won’t be sharing it with anyone. Months go by without progress, until Abe finally brings Aaron in on something he’s started observing – objects he puts in the activated box come out with a thick protein film on them, a fungus. “So if it’s an incubator for fungus, is that valuable?” asks Aaron, still hopeful. But this isn’t the point. The amount of fungus that’s created in five days inside the box takes five years to grow in nature. Something about parabolic trajectories, blocked pathways, repeated frequencies – I’m certain it’s a smoke-screen pastiche of semi-workable math and engineering (Carruth was a math major and a software engineer before making the movie), but that ain’t my thing, so I’m gripped by the sheer earnest tumble-speak of these two, in a garage, with a watch, with a vibrating box that is in effect a time machine. The fly-on-the-wall, near-documentary spirit of what comes before this moment of discovery works to supply a palpable mix of surprise, joy, wonder, and fear – that “what did we just do?” jolt feels real. And then, as they must if we’re to have a story, they put themselves into a bigger version of the box and come out the other side, just six hours before, though that duration is longer the further into the story you get, and the deeper the tension between the two friends gets. The rest of the plot, which steadily twists and tightens into a Gordian knot impossible to describe succinctly here, details their efforts to control the complicated damage done by their doubles, and their doubles’ doubles. Suffice it to say, there’s some initial studying of the stock page and, later, a reverse-engineered thwarting of a gun-blasting tragedy.
One of the things I love most about the movie is watching it scrape by on its own lack of fundage. By necessity of the famous $7,000 budget, yet with a careful artfulness that belies a young genius at work, Primer subverts common time travel tropes by simplifying them into near-invisibility. The whiz-bang, here-it-comes effects of a movie like, say, The Time Machine or Back to the Future, are here absorbed into the willfully bland artifice of an industrial business park, a storage facility, an apartment, a hotel room, a library. The moment in most time travel movies where the machine (if it is indeed a machine) or the body-trick (if it is instead a simpler blip from one place to another) is usually an act-breaking, paradigm-shifting, trailer-shot-worthy moment of truth. In Primer, it’s revealed in a calm long-shot through binoculars. There’s no dolly-zoom on Aaron taking it all in, there’s no lightning-bolt effects, or even a musical cue. It’s understatement in lieu of effects, and it’s exactly what makes the moment so visceral. I also love how the movie casually highlights – so casually you don’t even really register them on the first or second or third viewing – the banality at the heart of this suburban experimental endeavor. Don’t eat out of the fridge’s ice maker ’cause we had to use the filter. Hey, get the replacement router at Walmart and be sure to get a receipt. Don’t worry, we’ll put your catalytic converter back when we’re done. And it’s all delivered with a quiet, stammering authenticity and an almost Mamet-like obsession with broken and repeated sentences. It’s a style consistent enough to note as intentional, and smart enough as a device to hide some of what can generously be called not-yet-professional acting.
There’s a loomingly-eerie quality mixed in with the unabashedly egg-headed tone, but it never sacrifices a certain fun, head-scratching, conversational mystery. There are twists and turns to the time travel conceit that are so dense it’ll keep a cottage industry of interpretations lit up online till time travel actually exists. It can’t help but maintain a parable-like quality when it’s essentially a story that asks you to accept the truly impossible after only giving you the simplest of tools to make that impossibility happen – it’s just box with a timer on it, for goodness sake. But in the middle of the artichoke, there’s a theme or two lurking. Best I can tell, a key to unlocking any meaning that might be gleaned from Primer is the fact that there’s nothing about the lives of Aaron or Abe, at least as revealed to us in the movie, that would incline them toward needing to change anything. They are men who have homes, good friends, jobs, money, significant others, children, and brains. They are headed straight for what many would consider the good life, or as it’s called in a myriad of tones sincere and withering, “the American dream”. Most movies would set up a need for the characters to address, a problem for the characters to overcome, and in most movies where time travel is involved, it’s ultimately only the fantastical conduit by which the need or problem is satisfied, with some bones thrown to the nerds re: the cool or unique method for how this thing works. This movie has much of the latter (it’s, in fact, the first half of the film) but little of the former. But the absence of the usual barriers to happiness is not a mark against it, it’s an arrow pointing to Carruth’s intent, which seems to be more about the pure, unadulterated fact of a miraculous temporal bypass in and of itself, as an object to be marveled at, and a coldly logical breakdown of the way that this fact affects good, smart men in a moral sense, whether it actually solves a problem or not.
As for the elusive plot, I think it’s the Gordian knot of it all that turns off most people who are less inclined to like it. Why should we care, they might ask, about a movie that seems to deliberately omit scenes that would help clear up who’s doing what and when? But it seems to me that this is part of the point of the movie. We want clarity in our movies the same way we want, but rarely get, clarity in our lives. When we don’t get clarity in our movies, we assume we’re dealing with a filmmaker who doesn’t understand movies or life. But in this case, as in a movie like, say, 2001, there’s so much that’s so clearly well-crafted and deliberate in what is there, why shouldn’t we assume that what’s not there is not there deliberately too? I don’t think it’s a function of the low budget that these moments aren’t there, as some might speculate. I think it has to do with the kind of movie he’s making. (The opposite complaint is hung on Inception, a movie with a probably too-high budget that over-explains itself unto utter tedium.) If we were to create a time machine, and then use it, and then see for ourselves what damage we hath wrought from our temporal tampering, the act of managing all of that would become necessarily disorienting. After enough traveling back in time – even if only short hours or days, as in this movie – and after enough first-hand witnessing of ourselves interacting in the world, we’d be disoriented. We might start to forget what one version doesn’t know that another does. The movie doesn’t have to keep track of all of these permutations, because the point isn’t the easy succession of one moment after another and the peace that brings, it’s about the confusion created by losing the stabilizing anchor of simple cause-and-effect. When effect can be erased, as happens over and over in the film, seen and unseen, then the practical existence of cause itself ceases too.
It’s Carruth’s fidelity to character and smarts that creates my only real beef with the dispensation of info. Three-quarters through, Aaron has blood coming from his ear, and later both Aaron and Abe suffer unexplained hand trembles (with Abe’s clunky reading of a clunky line, “Why can’t we write like normal people?!”). But that’s the problem, these characters would never just accept these symptoms so quietly, they’d treat them like they do everything else in the movie, with a barrage of densely worded theories. Without jargon attached to the observations, the moments stick out. They seem arbitrary, like simple signifiers for the viewer rather than real-to-their-world calamities to be dealt with. In fact, once the symptoms set in, they aren’t referred to in any significant way again. Surely this is a complaint with a cherry on top, since it really points to how well these sort of things are handled elsewhere. Also, if I’m gonna go ahead and complain, I suppose it feels a little too cute to call his cat Filby – like the Time Machine character – but I’ll give him that one.
The out-of-control unspooling of time within the confines of this strict, logic-driven, synopsis-defeating plot recalls the words of recently deceased futurist Alvin Toffler, who said, “The rate of change has implications quite apart from, and sometimes more important than, the directions of change.” We follow these guys on their too-quick downward spiral from discovery to spiritual ruin, and we learn a lesson they don’t seem to: it doesn’t matter how rich your technology is, how free you are to access and change your past to fit your current requirements for stability/happiness, you will always create, create, create more amber brick moments, some of which will be worth sparing for all time, but most of which, if given the opportunity to change, could be relived better. Please take note, time travel is not a hobby for the perfectionist.