Dave & Dennis Review: PRIMER

Posted: September 20, 2013 in Uncategorized

My frequent collaborator C. Dennis Moore and I are doing weekly … or at least something approaching that… reviews of whatever one challenges the other to review that week. I’m the author of the novels Gray Lake and Death Sight, the first novel in my Will Castleton series. Dennis is the author of the novels Revelations and the Amazon #1 horror bestseller The Third Floor. His new novelThe Ghosts of Mertland just came out. Dennis has written more than 1,000 reviews, many of which are available in a series of books . I used to write reviews for the entertainment section of a large newspaper. Together Dennis and I have co-written a short novel called Band of Gypsies and the priced-to-sell $.99 full-length (70,000-word) story collection Terror Is Our Trade. Right now we’re working on a new Will Castleton novel called Return to Angel Hill, which combines my and Dennis’ series. Each week (or whatever) Dennis and I will post both our own and each other’s reviews of the subject at hand to our respective blogs – you can find Mr. Moore’s blog over here. This week Dennis’s pick was Primer.

PRIMER

by David Bain

Four out of five stars. (Five out of five stars in an alternate time stream.)

Watch Primer on Netflix

Buy or rent Primer on Amazon

I figured out the twist to The Sixth Sense within the first ten minutes or so in the theater.

I followed all of Miller’s Crossing the first time through.

I didn’t need any of the online charts to know what was going on in each level of Inception.

And Looper, though fun, wasn’t even challenging.

So I was, by God, not going to get lost while watching Primer, Shane Carruth’s now-legendary 2004 cult time-travel film, made for $7,000.

What? Yeah – $7,000.(And no, you won’t believe that figure’s true.)

But I got lost pretty darn quick.

Especially once the time-traveling began.

And I’d already been thrown by all the tech jargon before that.

Total duh, what?

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

One trick up Primer’s sleeve is that you buy what’s going on because the characters do.

It’s like some of David Lynch’s work – like, say, Mullholland Drive or Lost Highway or that theater thing he as with the rabbit people – where you eventually just throw your hands up in the air and say, okay, fine, I can no longer relate this to anything whatsoever in my experience except maybe bodies, objects, music, language, movement, but I’m nonetheless along for the ride. Even as you’re swimming in the WTF of it all, you trust that Lynch – and Primer – has some grand design or vision.

And, according to this flowchart and others, there really is a coherent storyline buried in the snippets we see – Primer’s actually a lot less Alice in Loopyland than Lynch’s more obtuse experiments.

But be forewarned – whereas Inception has … what? Five or whatever basically non-interactive levels so wildly different from each other that they’re pretty easy to sort, the Primer flow chart identifies nine different timelines, all of which interact directly with each other, with different time-variants of the same characters from each stream alternately hiding from/acting despite/running into/plotting with/scheming against/unbeknownst to one another.

I so much wanted to give this five stars. It’s brave, unique film-making, to be sure, and I’m all for tiny budgets making good – I don’t think I’d want to see the mega-million dollar version of this one.

But I think I would maybe have liked the one or two million dollar version better.

The story, as presented, is simply too minimalist, with too much cut and trimmed and too many leaps in plot.

That’s part of the point, of course – that real time travel would result in endlessly complicated loops and conundrums and disparities.

But…

See, writing this review is making me question some of my assumptions about film.

Should a film this ambitious and complex and challenging also be more enjoyable?

Should it be more easily comprehensible?

The wannabe film professor in me is asking his imaginary students, “If so, why?”

Because that’s what I wanted.

Is that a good enough answer?

Probably not. Explain.

What I’m trying to say is I totally recognize the ambition, and I love how Primer challenges you to watch it again and again. It will never, ever, under any circumstances, be the same film twice – which might be about the highest praise you can give a film.

But … okay, jump into the time machine.

Rewind.

Let me say it this way:

In some alternate time stream I’m giving this movie five stars.

In some other time stream I’ve watched it twenty-six times, not three, and I’m finally completely in love. I’m finally getting everything I wanted out of the thing.

In some other time stream I’ve invented my own time machine just so I can view Primer again and again, over and over, without losing yet another 79 minutes during which I could be watching something slightly more facile.

But in this present time stream … four stars.

A true marvel, given its budget, yes.

Worth several viewings.

Thought-provoking like nobody’s business.

But not worth memorizing a chart that would’ve boggled Rube Goldberg.

(And, before you ask, I have yet to see Carruth’s almost-as-oft-talked-about follow-up film Upstream Color – but, based on Primer, I will be, and I’m looking forward to it.)

Watch Primer on Netflix

Buy or rent Primer on Amazon

PRIMER

By C. Dennis Moore

Five out of five stars.

I like to think of myself as relatively intelligent.  I’m not a super-brain or anything, but as a writer of fiction, I think I have a pretty good grasp of non-linear storytelling since, oftentimes, scenes will come to you out of order and you have to figure out how and where it fits into the plot.  And I love time travel movies.  I love the puzzle of trying to sort out the plot as it goes along, what happened where, what alternate timelines were created, how does it fold back on itself.  But I’ve seen PRIMER twice now and, while I got it a little more the second time, I know I’m still not even close to fully understanding this movie.

Aaron and Abe are two of four partners in a group of science geeks who make extra money on the side with their own patents as they take known objects and try to improve on them.  When they try to redesign one particular invention meant to decrease the weight of an object, they discover it has a very peculiar side effect: it allows the user to travel backward in time, the length of travel time dependant on how long the “pilot” spends inside the machine.

As I believe many of us would, Abe and Aaron decide to use the machine to make more money, eventually deciding they’re going to get Aaron’s wife and daughter and take off to somewhere far away.  But first, they have one last trip they want to take back.  It’s an experimental trip, because when they get back, they plan to alter events so they never make this final trip, but on the way to the device, they see a man on the street who can’t possibly be there, because he’s at home in bed.

This brings up a million questions, the most important, how did he find out about the machine, and when and why did he use it?

The explanation that follows, told in voiceover and flashback by Aaron to an unknown recipient, while I’m sure it makes some kind of sense to someone a whole lot smarter than me, I’m still trying to puzzle it out.  And you know what?  Even not understanding 100% (let’s be honest, I don’t understand a good 25%-30% of this movie), it’s still such an enjoyable experience that it doesn’t matter.

Writer/director/producer/composer/and star of PRIMER, Shane Carruth shot his movie using mostly friends and family for $7000 in 5 weeks and went on to win the Grand Jury Prize and the Alfred P. Sloan Awards at the Sundance Film Festival, and while I don’t know much about Sundance, I know that sounds pretty impressive on a resume.

And it was well-earned.  Carruth’s writing is full of technical lingo and theories I couldn’t begin to understand if I had ten more years of education under my belt, my brain just isn’t wired for this kind of stuff.  But I know when a story is working, I know when dialogue is ringing true (ok, I know when dialogue I didn’t write is ringing true), and I know when a performance has the air of authenticity.  I believe 100% that Carruth and David Sullivan as Aaron and Abe are who they say they are and I believe they built a time machine.

But not once do they come across as pretentious know-it-all geeks who lord it over everyone how superior their intellects are.  In fact, they’re just two guys with jobs they don’t like who are trying to make a better life for themselves on the side, and not having a whole lot of success at it.  They just happen to have stumbled, entirely by accident, into something amazing.  As a long-time struggling writer, one who himself has, almost by accident, stumbled into some small amount of success, man did I ever sympathize with that.  You spend years fighting for every inch of ground you may gain in your chosen field, you do everything you’re supposed to do, all the things that are supposed to lead to success and then one day you make an adjustment to someone else’s design, or you decide on a whim to self-publish a ten-year-old novel, and before you know it, this incredible luck has fallen into your lap.

Whether by accident or by design, Shane Carruth has created two characters who almost everyone who sees this movie can, in one way or another, identify with.

I applaud Carruth’s decision to not dumb down the script, too.  Even though a lot of the technical stuff goes over my head, I appreciate his trust in his audience.  And even if we don’t get it, Aaron and Abe seem to, which just solidifies the audience’s belief that these two are real people who know just what they’re doing.

Really, there aren’t many accolades I could shower on PRIMER that would do it justice.  It’s just a very intelligent, well-made, thought-provoking movie that I would easily watch half a dozen more times.  And you should too.

Watch Primer on Netflix

Buy or rent Primer on Amazon

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