Primer? But I Only Just Met Her

June 30th, 2009

I adore movies that treat me like an intelligent adult. I don't hold my breath waiting for them, because breathing is important to me and most movies are all hurrrg this supermodel is a doctorologist, but it's nice when it happens. It's especially nice when the film in question is an unassuming little production, because discovering those makes me feel like a gritty Film Detective who takes the cases Big Hollywood won't touch. Of course, the hipster Internet film community has always discovered them years ahead of me, but fantasies where I'm a detective are basically all I have at this point, so leave me alone already.

Anyway, Primer is one of these films. It's not an allegorical Lynchian thing wherein half the dialogue is Unexplained Windy Noises--these are limited to maybe two scenes--but in terms of ordinary narrative cinema, it may have less immediate explanation and exposition than anything I've ever seen.

I'm surprised to find I'm in love with that concept. If it were a woman, I would marry her. We would have a pretentious wedding and she would bear me many intolerable children. All of my friends would detest her, and to be fair, I absolutely understand why.

Film is a business; movies are products. The goal of mainstream Hollywood cinema is to be liked and paid for by as many people as possible. If we take off our Filmtelligencia Berets and put on our Rationality Hats, this begins to make perfect sense. It isn't stupid or soulless. Like all other businesspeople, the dudes with bags of money who finance these movies don't want their products to be met with slack-jawed confusion.


The problem with the requirement for movies to make total, absolute sense is that it generally leads to two deplorable conventions when science is involved:

1.) Actual science is boring, so anything scientific or technological happens in a totally fictional way (Swordfish)

2.) Screenwriters must trot out inaccurate sports metaphors or ridiculous out-of-character explanations for anything that might confuse anyone whatsoever (24, Fringe, anything in which doctors explain to other doctors what a pancreas is)

Primer is the absolute polar opposite of this audience-coddling tradition. Usually when you're told you really have to see a film twice, it's because there's some gimmicky twist at the end and re-watching the film will allow you to go "oh he turned down that second helping of cake because he was a robot all along." In Primer's case, it's because the entire film is this minimalist puzzle whose pieces you don't even realize you're missing until it's over, and you're sitting there with your head cocked sideways like a dog trying to understand math.

The film begins with a sequence of images and a voice on the phone saying cryptic things.

A garage door. OR IS IT?

Dudes going to a garage. OR ARE THEY

One of those egg things. It is relevant to the plot.

The next scene is just four guys, apparently engineers, sitting at a kitchen table and realistically discussing the applications of their work. There is no silly fat guy who accidentally dumps his whole bag of Cheetos into a computer. At no point does anybody pivot toward the camera and helpfully explain microprocessors with an agricultural metaphor.

To explain where the film goes from here would eliminate some of its mystery, and to me the fun of this rare, unusual film is in figuring out what's going on, so I'm not going to do that. But the early presentation--clever editing, realistic dialogue, intelligent people being intelligent--characterizes the rest of the movie.

But what's really nuts is how the film looks. No trucks explode, and nobody bones Angelina Jolie, but it generally looks like a modestly-budgeted Hollywood production, say $5 million or so.

This film was made for far less than a hundredth of that. Almost a thousandth, actually.

In an industry where the average mainstream film costs over a hundred million dollars, where a $500,000 Spike Lee film is rounded down to $0 and considered essentially free, this well-acted, thoughtful, good-looking film was shot for $7,000.

That's nothing. That's the industry equivalent of the loose change you see on the ground and can't be bothered to pick up. Granted, a lot of those costs go toward publicity and star casting and other stuff Primer didn't have, but it's still a ridiculous accomplishment. Making a $7,000 film is what got Robert Rodriguez his job, and he's had an illustrious career alternating between kids' movie sequels and gruesome hackwork that makes me want to smack the dumb cowboy hat off his head, so hopefully Shane Carruth will do, like, anything at all with the respect this film has generated for him. That IMDb page is just depressing.

The Return of Primer: Wherein Marlon Wayans Is Stuck In There And Goes All Crazy In Olden Times


April 10th, 2009



© Jonathan Skindzier 2003-2009 unless it isn't.