Primer (2004)

“Because the dialogue is so tech-heavy, the hope is that those [early] scenes were built with information in them about the politics of the group, who’s proprietary, who’s enthusiastic about what, what the informal groups are within the group. The hope is that even if these guys are speaking a foreign language, or humming, that there’s information that’s moving the story along.” On one level, writer-director-cinematographer-producer-editor-star Shane Carruth is explaining his thinking for the first of two commentary tracks for the new DVD of Primer (the second features Carruth and cameraman Anand Upadhyaya, as well as actors Reggie Evans, David Sullivan, Chip Karruth, and Danny Bueche). But on another, he’s giving you a way into the film — if you don’t understand the technospeak, you’re okay. The time machine is a device, for the characters and viewers, a point of departure.

The ride offered by Primer is at once slick and bumpy. the characters who might as well be “humming” are best friends and coworkers Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), and their initial helpers, soon to be cast aside Robert (Casey Gooden) and Philip (Anand Upadhyaya). The initial project — set up in Aaron’s garage (Carruth notes that in making his $7,000 first feature, he planned sets for places he might be able to film for free, say, a friend or relative’s home) — aims to develop computer diagnostic equipment, by way of a super-conductor. But it’s not long before Aaron and Abe have changed course, by accident, and found a way to move forward and back in time. The fact that they are not quite anticipating their own future makes them, as Carruth notes, like “kids in a clubhouse,” poking around because it’s fun and vaguely new, which leaves them unprepared for what comes.

They call their device “the box,” for its utterly mundane appearance. The name also brings to the apparatus a kind of mystery, precisely because it is so simple-seeming, so patently uninteresting. Carruth, a math grad and former engineer has put together a remarkably delicate and strange film, spinning its essential notion into an increasingly creepy too-smart-for-their-own-good boys’ tale. They’re all nerdish sorts, toiling in some nondescript engineering facility by day, bored to the point of griping nondescriptly. The build-up to Aaron and Abe’s discovery is full of hushed mutterings about computer chips and microwaves, rules and judgments, as the guys wonder at their progress, making their device out of pieces from refrigerators and scraps lifted from their workplace.

While Aaron’s wife Carrie (Carrie Crawford) takes up background space in the kitchen, he and Abe exchange serious-seeming, self-amazed glances. They can do this thing, whatever it is, and the language they use to describe it is not hers, not yours, but theirs. Abe and Aaron are firsts. Or so they think. Once they begin to muck about in time, they come up against the dangers of doubling, recursion, degeneration.

For all their strangeness, the boys’ brainy breakthroughs and mechanical computations look strikingly dull, shot on super 16mm and blown up to 35mm to evoke a grainy everydayness. But this visual strategy also exacerbates the drama: camera angles are tight and handheld, Aaron and Abe’s faces look pale and weary, as if they haven’t been sleeping. It’s as if the filmmaking itself has turned into a science experiment, devoid of the usual dramatic rises and falls, character evolutions, and appeals to viewer sympathy. These figures are flimsy and occasionally off-putting, their dialogue overlapping and elliptical, countering familiar narrative cues and so, in the film’s cleverest gambit, asking viewers to reconsider your own habits of linking temporal and emotional “meanings.” What are you looking for? Where is the sense you seek? And why do you care so much?

Eventually, the movie does get on with its story, that is, the repercussions of Abe and Aaron’s time travel. And this, even in sparse, low-budgeted, minimalism, brings problems of causality, embodiedness, and ethics. Soon the several selves are inhabiting alternate realities, and the film slips into a kind of moebius strip of plot, such that Abe and Aaron’s multiple relationships in and to time aren’t always entirely clear. Initially, they move back in time a few hours, but soon the film is moving back and forth across past, present, and what might be called a future, and only by increments. Smart and self-knowing, Primer continues to complicate rather than clarify any single trajectory.

As the action folds back into itself, Aaron and Abe ponder how best to maintain, contain, and exploit their extraordinary circumstance. Should they buy stock in a company they know will go up, bet on March Madness? How can they keep control of their multi-dimensionally changing relationships with others around them, wives and girlfriends and coworkers? And what about their own increasing interdependence and simultaneously eroding sense of trust?

“I wanted to build an analogy of how it would work that would kind of answer some of the questions that I would have when I watched other films that have to do with time travel. This whole idea of picking up at one point in time and moving to another — Marty [McFly] goes from present day to the ’50s — it’s all fun and stuff, but something about that bothered me. If you jump back a day, if you jump back 24 hours, you would find yourself in empty space because of the amount of distance the earth has moved since then, in its orbit. So it seemed that if you want to address moving through time, you’ve got to talk about keeping up with where space is.” It’s a terrific conceit, as the boys try to track themselves and the space that they traverse in their time movements.

Aaron and Abe have a rudimentary understanding of the risks of running into themselves, as well as the ways that time and space are dreadfully and absolutely connected (when you move in space, you make time, your movement provides a measure). So they spend as much screen time devising how to stay out of sight when the doubles are loose on the world as they do concocting the device. Aaron, who “goes through” first, you think, explains his method to Abe, who follows suit: they hang out in a motel room, playing cards and eating chips from vending machines, carefully denying themselves any media input, as this will color the consciousness of their second (and third and more) selves, and so affect their first selves. These first selves are step by step and understandably unhinged, unable to trust that they are themselves, that they are original. Though of course, they do know. You think. Soon, the differences between first and second become blurred, as another issue arises, concerning originality and duplication: how does one or another entity take precedence, become primary, or assume significance?

The “science” here sounds jargony and arcane enough to seem to make sense, but the film is smarter and more engaging in its emotional machinations — jealousy, anxiety, competition. A neighbor, Granger (brother Chip Carruth — “It’s good to employ your family,” Shane Carruth observes, “because they can’t leave”), appears to have followed them, copied them, or rather, made a similar machine that allows his movement through the temporal play loop. But at the same time — so to speak — their own actions, past and future, are changing their self-understandings, their fearfulness, and their connections with others; Abe, you find out late (though when in the boys’ time is less clear), has a girlfriend, Rachel (Samantha Thomson), Granger’s daughter and a point of contention for the time-traveling friends.

The dilemma of time is endless. Really — circular, immeasurable, illusory. Just when and how the Rachel tensions develop is less important than their emergence in the film at a certain narrative point. For it’s then (if not before) that you see how this plot (indeed, plot per se) is at once arbitrary and ordained, arranged and nonsensical. The conventions that writers and readers hold so dear — cause and effect, individual identity, linear order — are revealed as articles of representational faith rather than necessity, matters of convention more than inevitable substance. This is a neat trick, for even as Primer‘s plot ends up seeming contrived, that is, arguably, the thematic point: stories are always unstable and untrustworthy.