Aaron: Shane Carruth
Abe: David Sullivan
Robert: Casey Gooden
Phillip: Anand Upadhyaya
Kara: Carrie Crawford
ThinkFilm presents a film directed and written by Shane Carruth. Running time: 78 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for brief language).
I’m sitting on my couch. Mind racing. What did I just see? It was cinema. It was ideas. It was pure sci-fi without any beeps and whistles. Conjured up from the imagination of a man named Shane Carruth, yet so little presented as imagination. The time travel debate tackled in the way people tear it apart whenever they see a movie involving time travel and are unwilling to suspend their disbelief to even accept that it is possible. Does it seem possible with this film? Is it all simply a set up to present a thriller in such an original way that no one suspects what it is? Did he really want the praise it garnered when it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival? Was it whimsy? Did he foresee that result?
It is now four days later. Thursday. I have written my review at the last minute as I do each week with my self-imposed deadline, as if I actually get paid to write my thoughts down for hundreds or thousands to read each week. As if what I think of a film really matters. I give the film three and a half stars. But I will go back and fix that on Sunday night immediately after viewing the film because it occurs to me that the way the actual time travel in this film works as imagined by Carruth works literally the same as the device his character Aaron accidentally invents with his friend Abe, played by David Sullivan. Perhaps the confusion created by the convolutions of the story by the film’s end warrants some sort of deduction in star rating, but I don’t really care since this film has stimulated my brain so vigorously. Besides, that’s not really how star ratings work. At least in my imagination. I want to see this movie again and again and again, to see if I can get it straight in my head. I doubt I ever will. I think that’s the point. Maybe I’ve already seen it again.
It is Saturday afternoon. I open up my mailbox and see my favorite type of mail, the red Netflix envelope. Walking up the drive I shuffle the envelope containing the DVD to the top of my pile, almost unconsciously, as is my custom. I try to remember which disc was next in my queue. Was it The Secret of Roan Inish? I know it was one of the films playing at Roger Ebert’s 7th Annual Overlooked Film Festival, going on this very weekend in Champaign, Illinois. I was unable to attend, so I put every film available on DVD at the top of my rental queue. Primer was just released on Tuesday. It comes to me that this was the last film my e-mail box informed me was sent.
Upon opening that red envelope in my standard manner: stick my left index finger under the sealed address flap and rip open cleanly along the perforated fold, then fold other perforated end to make another clean tear along the return seal flap before sliding the disc out in its own slip case; I notice immediately the title of the film. Instead of just reading “Primer”, the people at Netflix have also included as a sub title to the film following that title and a semicolon: “What Happens If It Actually Works?”. I’ve never seen this subtitle attached to this film anywhere else.
I read the description of the film. “An engineer builds a machine (quite by accident) that can transport the user back in time. But his discovery comes with an ominous caveat, nothing is as it seems on the surface. The narrative inventively blends a patchwork story line with overlapping streams of dialogue that help build the tension and suspense in this Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner. David Sullivan and Shane Carruth star. (Please note, despite the R rating displayed when this disc is played, the movie is rated PG-13.) Rated PG-13 1 hr. 17 min. 2004.”
Wednesday night. I lie in bed thinking, “God, that description I gave of that movie is so misrepresentative of the actual film. Maybe I should go back and just use the description on the Netflix label. It is just as misrepresentative, but it is also somehow appropriate, as all brief synopses seem to be. And at least then I’ll be able to blame someone else.”
Sunday night. I’m starting the movie. Rated R? “For brief language”? That doesn’t make sense. As the strange lighting of the film’s opening shot reveals the setting to be much different than expected from the rows of lights that first appear, I can’t put the thought away that this film already is a perfect representative example of the types of movies Roger Ebert likes to pick for his Overlooked festival. It is understated, quite and deceptive. Those rows of lights turn out to be the windows of a garage door as seen from the inside of the garage at night. The theme of those lights not being what they seem makes up an important feature of the story. Not those particular lights, but the illusion of things not being what they seem. Hey, the description on the Netflix jacket had that right.
The characters talk over each other. Their conversations are confusing. Robert Altman has had a profound, far-reaching affect on film. The film itself ponders its themes and ideas in the very same way people carry on conversation. My mom always made fun of the conversations I would have with my best friends because to anyone else it sounds like gibberish, but isn’t that true with any group of friends. The conversations in the film, which is mostly conversational, are that way. I pick up slowly what these guys are talking about, but I never learn everything. Would I if I watched it enough times? I could watch it again, and it isn’t even over. Do I break my own illusion of a theatrical experience by pressing the rewind button on the remote to go back and catch something that I already missed? How would that affect my viewing experience?
It is later. How long? Days. Months. Weeks. Does it matter? Have I seen the movie again? How many times? Probably not. But could I really know? Maybe one of my other selves has seen it? Maybe I’ve given too much away in my review. I don’t really see how that is possible, since I mostly talked about myself. I think I described how I opened up my mail? Maybe I should go back and change that. I suspect that no amount of viewings could resolve all the questions I have about this film. Maybe they could. Some would say the filmmakers must know exactly what happens in it. I would almost hope not. I think the reason time travel is such a popular subject for film is because it is something we as humans want to grasp but never can. If the filmmakers have all the answers, why the hell are they making a film about it? Maybe that answer lies within the film. Maybe I should take another look at it.