Never as good as the first time: Primer


Last May, on seeing a festival screening of Primer, the debut film by an affable young Texan named Shane Carruth, I enjoyed it immensely, even when I hadn’t the slightest idea of who was trailing whom or for what. Carruth paces his film with such urgency and edits his footage so frenetically that the images supercede the scientific jibberish its characters prattle.

When I first encountered the movie, I wrote this:

Carruth pulls off fantastical elements of a time-tripping, time-bending narrative amidst pre-fab, deliberately banal settings. Most of the action occurs in A) someone’s garage, B) a U-haul storage bin, and C) an anonymous corporate hotel room. His compositions are often brilliant, such as one brief, early shot of a foreground room illumined only by the blinking lights of a Christmas tree while, in the background, twin door frames peer into a bright, harshly lit kitchen—the men huddled around a table talking business on the right; a silent, excluded wife clearing away dishes on the left. Women are practically nonexistent in Primer. The movie manages to be gleefully homoerotic without being gay, a trick that queer cinema ought to consider trying. The 30ish male leads Abe and Aaron (love the Biblical assonance) always wear crisp, white button-downs and forgettable striped ties. They’re relentlessly normal, and there’s a vague, bland, primeval sexiness inherent in watching these white-shirted, jargon-spouting men walk off with car parts or turn around a refrigerator as they hunt for useful components in their science experiment.

Just last week, after waiting all summer long, I was finally able to see Primer a second time. To my chagrin, the movie doesn’t hold up well.

I still agree with what I wrote above: visually, Primer remains richly satisfying. I love how Carruth uses the quartet of garage door windows to create frames within frames, a device he deploys often, and never more beautifully than in the moment bits of confetti drop from Abe’s hands, and we view their slow motion freefall through a monitor’s blue lens.

Carruth strikingly utilizes a palette of garish green tints, white, silver, and glaring yellows. On those rare occasions when he switches to a cool blue, as in the brief, blue-gray, vertically sloped composition of Aaron lying anxiously awake in the pre-dawn hours, it has an effect not unlike those sudden shafts of chilly night air, stirrings of the breeze that violate the torpor and the stillness of an Indian summer.

primer6Fault cannot be found with the performances. Carruth as Aaron and David Sullivan as Abe infuse a fresh believability into their regular Joe archetypes. The dark-haired Carruth has the appeal of an earnest young politician (a la John Edwards); the strawberry-blond Sullivan speaks with a slight Texan cadence that fits his high-tech good old boy persona to perfection. While most of the dialogue feels (and falls) perfunctorily flat, there’s one memorable exchange between the men. After leaping into their storage bin time machines has become a standard occurrence, one comments to the other, “Isn’t the sound different on the inside? It’s like singing.” And his friend reciprocates by likening the sensation to a “dream of the surf and tide.” This remark may sail right over (no pun intended) those of us living on the coast. Consider, though, where Abe and Aaron are geographically. Ocean dreams carry an altogether heightened significance for landlocked Dallas suburbanites.

Where, then, does Primer go wrong?

It’s Carruth’s sense of story structure that goes disastrously askew. We’re asked to accept that the time travel creates “doubles” of Abe and Aaron; however, there’s little to no directorial differentiation between the secondary and the primary. Which version are we watching, and why is it so difficult to care once the shock of the new has worn away? Carruth’s notions of conflict aren’t especially well conceived, in particular the instance of Abe’s girlfriend’s father somehow finding his way into time travel and creating his own (crazed?) double. And do these daily doubles expire or do they keep on multiplying? Whatever the answer, Carruth hasn’t come up with even an entertainingly incoherent elucidation. The movie, on second glance, thus grows thinner, gaunt to the threshold of malnourishment.

That criticism raised, I can’t help but admire the autodidact Carruth, who made this film almost single-handedly, and share in the joy of his $7,000 success story. He has an unerring eye for images of austere grace. He’s a talent to watch—if, as in the case of Primer, only at a matinee price. – NPT

October 13, 2004