Wednesday, 1 September 2010

'00 Ten Part Three: "Primer" (2004)

Not so long ago, I watched Charlie Kaufman's most recent film, Synecdoche, New York - a fantastic film, both beautiful and intelligent, and one that narrowly missed making its way onto this list. When it came to describing the mental journey that film took me on, I opted to call it "the most cerebrally challenging film I've seen since 2004's Primer". However, after making this comparison, a small niggling feeling stayed with me that it had been a good couple of years since I last watched Primer, therefore making the comparison a little unfair on both films. Therefore, having just rewatched Primer I can now confirm that the statement I made in reference to Synecdoche, New York is indeed accurate. I can also supplement it with an additional statement: Primer is, to date, the most cerebrally challenging film I've ever seen.

So mindbending are the concept, plot and narrative of Primer that every time I watch it, I go through a similar mental process. Before watching, I remind myself of the general idea of time travel behind the story and the principles that are established within the universe of the film, and convince myself that I will have a slightly better understanding of the story as a whole than I did last time. I begin watching, with certain scenes and elements of the film ringing bells in my head, allowing me to begin the process of piecing together the elaborate jigsaw that director Shane Carruth is laying out in front of me. And then, as the film reaches its climax, I realise that my understanding of the story isn't any better than it was last time (in fact, the second time I watched it, I actually understood the story much less than I did the first time), and I ultimately come to the conclusion that no matter how many times I watch Primer, I'll never fully get my head around it.

So, why has a film that in many ways I don't understand made it into my ten defining films of the decade? Well, there's quite a lot of reasons actually. Firstly, it's the fact that the film doesn't really care whether you fully understand every single thing it shows you or not. Carruth as writer and director refuses to dumb down his story or the way he tells it, and by doing so keeps both his own integrity and that of the film incredibly high. Throughout Primer, Carruth provides the absolute minimum of exposition, with what little that is there being present simply because it's part of the story and not to hold the viewer's hand at any point. He describes the main characters at the start of the film as "clever" but not geniuses, and masterfully keeps the characters' language and attitudes to that level - to have them begin explaining all the science and technology used in the film would simply mean they wouldn't ring true to who they are meant to be.

By the same token, Carruth makes sure there's plenty in the film that the characters are experiencing that they themselves don't fully (or, in a handful of cases, at all) understand, lending the characters depth and genuineness, which in turn makes the whole situation presented by the film feel all the more authentic and real. Carruth also shows bravery and confidence through his filmmaking by leaving certain elements pretty much completely unexplained, instead only referring to them and leaving the audience (and the characters) to make of them what they will. The effect that time travel has on the handwriting of Aaron and Abe, the two main characters, is a prime example of this. The fact that Carruth simply chooses not to explain why the two men can't write in more than a scrawl after time travelling several times renders that particular facet both intriguing and chilling. The inclusion of touches such as this again adds further dimension to the story and concept Primer presents to the audience, and proves that each thread of a film does not necessarily need to be tied up neatly or explained away before the credits roll to make for a satisfying experience. If anything, it left me pondering the film for much longer after I'd finished watching than if everything had been nicely wrapped up.

The second reason Primer deserves its place on this list is that it is a masterclass in low budget filmmaking. When I first watched the film, I knew it wasn't a multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbuster, but when I found out that the entire film had been made on a budget of approximately US $7,000 (on a rough calculation, using 2004 exchange rates, no more than £4,000) I was completely dumbfounded. If anything, I would encourage people to see Primer for this reason more than any other, as even if you don't understand one single thing that's happening in the film, it's impossible not to be impressed with the film Carruth has created on such an extremely small budget. In comparison, the budget of Transformers, one of the biggest sci-fi films of the last decade, was approximately 21,429 larger than that of Primer. And there's no doubt in my mind which is the superior film (hint: Transformers won't be making an appearance in my list of ten).

Maybe a comparison with such a huge CGI-heavy blockbuster is too vast a cinematic gulf to traverse, but the numbers alone are enough to show how minuscule was the amount of money with which Carruth completed his film. The amount becomes slightly more understandable when you find out the fact that the vast majority of people involved in the film were Carruth's friends and family, from the catering staff right the way up to the actors - another fact that astounded me considering the consistent high quality performances throughout the film. There aren't any powerhouse Oscar-worthy turns, but equally there are no performances that stand out as weak or amateur or that let the film down. But perhaps most astounding of all is the list of roles Carruth himself fulfils throughout the film. IMDB lists Carruth as writer, director, actor (he plays main character Aaron), producer, soundtrack composer, editor, casting director, production designer and sound designer. A mind-boggling list, made even more impressive by the fact that Carruth's background is not in filmmaking, but in maths and engineering. Essentially, Carruth took on everything he could in making Primer, and the result shows what can be accomplished with what in filmmaking terms is the bare essentials.

My final reason for including Primer in my list is simply the way it so perfectly holds a mirror up to the 21st Century everyman. The way in which Abe and Aaron deal with their time travel discovery and what it enables them to do as the film progresses twists and evolves until the very last scene. When they first realise what they've stumbled upon and how important it is, they decide to keep it entirely to themselves, even bluntly cutting out the two friends from work with whom they have been working. The first thing we see them use time travel for is to make money on the stock market. The two men are selfish and without morals, and we as the audience condemn them for it. But it's hard to imagine a couple of ordinary office workers doing anything else. If we'd seen them do anything other than entirely protect their own interests and use their discovery for their own gain then Primer's authenticity would have no doubt suffered severely.

The more entangled the two men become within the intricate time web of their own creation, the more we see them run the gamut of emotion and morality, stretching to the limits their friendship, their health and their humanity. And we continue to struggle with how to react to their actions, but at the same time see within them more of the society in which we live. We find some of the things the men do questionable, others deplorable, but if we saw them do anything else they would neither be as authentic as characters, nor would they so sublimely reflect the zeitgeist of the period in which the film is set and was made. Abe and Aaron aren't bad men, they're just men. In his creation of Primer, one of the most original films made, not only in the last decade but also in any decade, Shane Carruth has both created a truly fantastical scenario and a breathtakingly authentic portrayal of the society of the time.

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