Primer's Time

Thu Aug 25, 2005

Shane Carruth’s Primer, budgeted at \$7,000, is the most intelligent time-travel film I’ve ever seen (including La Jetee.) Though I can’t claim to be a time travel film scholar like Chuck Tryon, I think he’s come to a similar conclusion. It remains vaguely obscene to compare it to The Matrix or Memento, as some of the understandably puzzled reviewers have done. Before getting into just what’s so good about it, consider the following thought-experiment: at what order of magnitude increase in budget could the film not have been made?

  • \$70,000–this level might have improved some of the cinematography and hastened the editing without compromising the film overly.

  • \$700,000–here, investor anxiety might have begun to affect how the film would have turned out. I can’t imagine how Carruth could have gotten this kind of money from anyone for his project. It remains faintly miraculous that the film was ever made and distributed. (I should note that the \$7,000 figure could not include a market-value estimate of Carruth’s two years of editing labor. This may not matter.)

  • \$7,000,000–at this point, still virtually nothing in film budget terms, Primer would have been unrecognizable. Casting the Wilson brothers as leads wouldn’t have helped at all. And the professional technique available at this level, however basic, would have been corrupting.

Shot in 2001, Primer (I was going to write “captures the logic of invention in this unusually late capitalismistic moment,” but that doesn’t quite do it), explores the origin of the desire to invent. It shows invention more realistically and teaches us how to follow the engineer through society more aptly than any film I can remember. The two principals are named Aaron and Abe. You probably can’t help but suspect some of the old teleological suspension of the ethical in Abe and Aaron’s manufactured omniscience and the resulting paradoxes, but it’s just a smear. Nothing is laid on thick. And they dress just like I did when I worked at the nuclear power plant. No costume designer in the world could have found such sublime ties. And how subtle it is. You can trace the history of their friendship by observing how they throw a football. Note that Abe (the actor, David Sullivan, played football at Baylor, perhaps during the William Dembski era) is casually athletic while Aaron is uncoordinated. Perhaps in compensation, he’s more intellectually dominant and ambitious, a problem when it’s turned inward.

The film’s partial explanation of what’s happening spatio-temporally relies on the parabola, and I’m not yet willing to attempt to explicate it in more detail. The etymological connection of “parabola” with “parable,” particularly in reference to the allusion I noted above, is hard to avoid, however. If you can constrain the cycle, you have the power of the cycle. Carruth explicitly invokes recursion and strange loops in interviews (and perhaps also in the instructive director’s commentary). Historical inertia is easily disturbed. I can’t decide to what extent the film’s logic recognizes this. If, as I think, Primer is primarily about world-creation, then historical inertia is the main problem. The ever-growing boxes, which increase both the nesting potential and the length of the cycle, thus increase the user’s sub-temporal domain (and his avatars). Is the final scene meant to be in Africa, perhaps?

I know this is confusing as all hell if you haven’t seen the film (and perhaps if you have). But give it a try.

[Cross-posted at the Valve]