The New Cult Canon: Primer

As I promised/threatened when I started this project, the term "cult movie" would be defined in many different ways, but one of the major buzzwords for me is "obsession," movies that inspire people to watch them compulsively. The vast majority of films are disposable, easily grasped the first time around and yielding next to nothing on the second or third viewing. Cult movies are another story: Sometimes they create worlds so singularly seductive and inviting that they beckon people back for another visit, like some favorite exotic vacation spot. Other times, they're so intricately constructed that viewers want to puzzle over their mysteries. (It's little wonder that Donnie Darko remains one of this generation's biggest cult phenomena, because it satisfies both scenarios at once.) Shane Carruth's stunning debut feature Primer unquestionably falls into the latter category, though I hasten to add that the film's resourceful cinematics are what endear it to me the most.

Primer was shot on Super 16mm for $7,000. Let that sink in a moment. On low-budget independent productions, film stock can be prohibitively expensive, hence the move toward shooting on digital video, which allows the camera to run for eternity without costing more than a stack of dimes. Only recently—thanks to films like David Fincher's Zodiac, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Climates, and Michael Haneke's Caché—I've started to come around to the idea that hi-definition video could be a viable substitute for film, and I'm certain that digital technology will one day be so good that pondering celluloid's extinction won't make me want to curl up in a fetal ball and sob.

But back in 2004, when Primer deservedly won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, there was plenty of reason for skepticism. It had been nearly a decade since Lars von Trier and his Danish cronies signed off on their Dogme '95 manifesto, and independent filmmakers of all stripes seemed determined to degrade the medium as thoroughly as possible. The economics of shooting on film are debatable, as Primer makes startlingly clear, but too many filmmakers then and now use video as an excuse for visual indifference. And most gallingly of all, the Dogme '95 guys seemed to believe that cinematics of any kind are a bourgeois indulgence—that if you strip away the artifice of lighting, set design, unnatural sound, and non-handheld camera movement, you're somehow keeping it real.

For a laugh, I did a search of past reviews on this site where I commented on the use of digital video. Between barbs about films that look "filtered through what appears to be an old sweatsock" (Virgin) or mimic "the high grain of a QuickTime movie" (The Center Of The World), I came across this passage, on Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming's forgettable ensemble comedy The Anniversary Party:

Aside from crummy picture quality, one of the major drawbacks of digital video is that its cheapness and flexibility make filmmaking too easy, encouraging conceptual laziness and self-indulgence more often than inspired experimentation.

To my mind, Primer is the opposite of movies like The Anniversary Party: By shooting on 16mm with a four-figure budget, Carruth couldn't afford to be conceptually lazy or self-indulgent. In fact, he couldn't afford to shoot more than one take per setup, because burning through film stock is equivalent to burning through money. He had to get it right the first time.

And even with no margin for error, he had the audacity to shoot several long takes and a few complicated dolly shots. Necessity being the mother of invention, Carruth had no choice but to plan the film scrupulously and think it through on every level, which is not the sort of rigor one associates with improvisational nothings like The Anniversary Party.

The genius of Primer is that form matches content: Carruth is telling a story about a couple of young inventors working out of a garage, so it follows that he'd take a similarly analog approach to filmmaking. An autodidact with an engineering background, Carruth shot the film in his native Dallas, with his parents' house serving as a primary location. From the very first shot—which makes the windows of a darkened garage look like the view from an alien spaceship—the film has an eerie, fluorescent-tinged ambience that's appropriate for science fiction and true to the life of a scientist. Add to that an underlay of computer-generated music (also composed by Carruth, who wanted the score to move from simple acoustic sounds to something more ethereal as the film progressed), and Primer feels as much like an ingenious homemade gizmo as the time machine its characters invent.

Frustrated in his efforts to find suitable actors to carry across his deadpan techno-speak dialogue, Carruth cast himself and David Sullivan as Aaron and Abe, a couple of hardware wizards looking for that big entrepreneurial breakthrough. Though they work with a couple of partners out of Aaron's garage, Aaron and Abe are secretly constructing a machine called "the box," which they originally envision as a superconductor that can degrade gravity on an object, but which has some amazing unintended side effects. One of those side effects is that it operates on a feedback loop, and puts out slightly more voltage than they're putting in. In this clip, Aaron demonstrates this remarkable discovery:

As they continue experimenting, they find that time works differently in the machine than it does on the outside. When they put a watch in the machine for one minute, it registers the equivalent of 1,300 minutes in the box. They perform tests on wristwatches and fungi, but before long, they resolve to build an even bigger box for human use. (And they do it with full knowledge of their recklessness: "I can think of no way in which this thing can be considered remotely safe," says one.) A larger machine is constructed and housed in a U-Haul storage garage. This box lets users go backward in time, but they have to spend as much time in the machine as they want to go back, so when they want to go back six hours, they have to stay in the box (with oxygen tanks) for six. In essence, the experience lets them extend their days by however many hours they spend in the machine. What's more, the process creates clone-like doubles: the person who originally lived through the time is separate from the one who has gone back to that time. This means that many different Aarons and Abes are running around, and perhaps operating independent of each other.

At first, the men are careful to tread lightly, because as anyone who's seen Back To The Future and read other time-travel stories knows, how you behave in the past can have a potentially cataclysmic effect on the future. They initially resolve to check into a hotel room out of town—they wouldn't want to bump into themselves, after all—and wait it out quietly, without so much as turning on the TV. But soon enough, they're keen to manipulate their dreadful power to maximum advantage: first financially, by playing the stock market and betting on college basketball games, and later personally, when one of them tries to reverse-engineer the events at a party in order to make himself the hero. In this clip, Abe and Aaron are in the hotel room watching a basketball game—a scene that ends with a line that's simultaneously mind-blowing and hilarious:

From the start, Carruth doesn't go out of his way to explain things to the audience. He wants his characters to talk like scientists talk, not in the lame metaphors and dumbed-down language that passes for dialogue in other science-fiction films. The banter is heavy on technical jargon and almost perversely short on exposition; were it not for the presence of voiceover narration (via an answering-machine message), the film would be close to incomprehensible. Some might say that's a flaw on Carruth's part, either because he's overestimated what his audience can grasp or he's failed somehow as a storyteller. And I don't doubt that many viewers will simply not be up for the mental gymnastics it takes to get through this movie. But for nerds of a certain kind—lovers of hard science fiction and puzzles, science geeks and brainiacs of the sort depicted in the film—Primer not only welcomes but requires multiple viewings, and Carruth has insisted that all the information that people need to work the story out is there.

I consider myself a reasonably intelligent, attentive guy, but I've seen the film three times now, and I've barely scratched the surface in terms of piecing the story together. But I don't find that intimidating, off-putting, or unsatisfying; on the contrary, the film is more mysterious and compelling for being so resistant to easy solutions. As much as any other time-travel film to date, Carruth is really paying respect to the enormous paradoxes implied by ruptures in the space-time continuum. The truth is, even Abe and Aaron can't comprehend the grave implications of what they've created, so why should we be a step ahead of them?

At bottom, Primer is a movie about morals and ethics, about how science is able to accomplish extraordinary things without regard to their consequences. On the breathless (and terrific) DVD commentary track, Carruth calls Abe and Aaron "kids in a clubhouse" and mocks their habit of strutting around in crisp dress shirts and ties. As the film progresses, the sheer enormity of their creation throws their very human flaws into sharp relief; they reveal themselves to be untrustworthy, greedy, and often narrowly self-serving and diabolical in how they use the machine. Carruth's enthusiasm for old-fashioned, homemade innovation is obvious and infectious—his film, after all, is an excellent example of it—but his worries about scientific hubris give Primer a scary, almost apocalyptic chill. Clearly, some doors weren't meant to be opened.

Coming Soon:

Cult On The Cheap Month continues…

April 17: Pi

April 24: The Blair Witch Project

May 1: I Am Cuba

May 8: The Rules Of Attraction

More The New Cult Canon