Saturday, January 27, 2007

Wait, Can We Go Over That Again? Thoughts on Primer

"How do cellphones work?" Abe, one of the protagonists in Shane Carruth's ultra-low budget 2004 SF film Primer, asks his friend Aaron, at a point near the film's midpoint. The line is delivered with some urgency, and with good reason--depending on the answer, Abe and Aaron may have just created a time-travel paradox. This is one of the standard landmarks of the SF or technological thriller film--the point at which a seemingly safe scientific discovery goes off the rails--and as he does throughout the entire film, Carruth chooses to present it in a non-standard manner. Whereas in another film, the characters' emotions would be at the forefront--they would swear, or go very silent, or take on a terrified expression--in Primer, Abe and Aaron's fear is expressed through an urgent quest for knowledge, the acquisition and application of which takes up the bulk of their waking hours.

Since it gained significant acclaim at the Sundance film festival (where it won the Grand Jury prize), Primer has become known in SF fan circles primarily for its opacity. It is a film that simply cannot be digested after a single viewing--a minimum of two are required simply to figure out the most fundamental principles of its story and invented science, and listening to the commentary from Carruth (who also wrote the script, produced the film, and plays Aaron) is highly recommended. Primer, in other words, is a work that can be appreciated best--perhaps solely--in its secondary format, DVD (which, unfortunately, is not an option for me--my local rental place doesn't carry it. I taped the film off TV and have therefore not listened to the commentary tracks). This is a very strange approach for a filmmaker to take (I remember reading at least one review of the film whose author wondered whether Carruth wasn't at the forefront of a profound change in our perception and consumption of the medium), but it starts to make more sense if one classes the film as a short story--specifically, a time travel story. The good ones are rare, but if you've been lucky enough to come across one, you'll remember how heady and pleasurable the experience of going back and back again to unpick and puzzle out a linear narrative about non-linear characters can be. Primer--short, meticulously plotted, and demanding--has earned its place within this exclusive pantheon.

Part of the reason that Primer is so hard to parse is Carruth's dialogue, almost none of which is expository or explanatory. When they're not referring obliquely to incidents in their shared past to which the viewers are not--and will not become--privy, Abe and Aaron speak almost exclusively in technical jargon. The two are technology workers who, along with two friends, run a side-business out of Aaron's garage, toying with whatever idea catches their fancy, hoping that through hard work and determination they can light upon the next big thing and skyrocket to wealth and fame. Abe and Aaron's project involves retro-engineering a low-temperature superconductor, which they hope to be able to run at room temperature, but what they end up discovering is a practical form of time travel. Once again, there is a standard template, an emotional palette, to this kind of story, one which Carruth eschews completely. He relentlessly downplays Abe and Aaron's research even as it approaches its most frenzied point, and frequently cuts away just as they're about to make an important discovery. Decagrams, volts, the names of elements and of scientific and electronic paraphernalia feature heavily in these scenes, and even as they begin to grasp the magnitude of what they've discovered, Abe and Aaron are focused on the minutiae of their experiments, on the reliability of their equipment or on a method for safely documenting their results.

I'm reminded, once again, of Peter Watts's Blindsight, which makes a similar--although by no means as extensive or as dedicated--a use of technical jargon. In his not-so-positive review of the book at The New York Review of Science Fiction, John Clute writes (first quoting from the book itself):
"Probe's fried," Bates reported. "Spike there at the end. Like it hit
a Parker Spiral, but with a really tight wind."

I didn't need to call up subtitles. It was obvious in the set of her
face, the sudden creases between her eyebrows: she was talking about a
magnetic field.

"It's—" she began, and stopped as a number popped up in ConSensus: 11.2 Tesla.

"Holy shit," Szpindel whispered. "Is that right?"
And so on. (We are never told, by the way, if 11.2 Tesla is right or wrong, or why it matters.) ... most of what I quoted above is undigested geek static, a deincentivizing fug of unverb, as depressive as old cigarette smoke: another iteration of the old NO GRILS ALOUD treehouse argot of hard sf -- I mean, if you don't already know the holy shit significance of 11.2 Tesla you don't belong in *my* tree.
I'm somewhat in agreement with Clute when it comes to Watts's novel, but the same approach is eerily effective in Carruth's film. Partly, I suspect, it's the visual medium and the live actors delivering the lines that keep them from being entirely dry. Partly, it's that Carruth simply has more courage, more faith in his material than Watts does. There are no "holy shit"s in Primer, and perversely enough it is the absence of such expressions of fear and dismay that engender these feelings in an audience already jaded by fleets of paint-by-numbers technological thrillers. A sense of menace builds precisely because Abe and Aaron are so matter-of-fact, so unemotional, about a discovery that one of them terms "the most important thing a living organism has ever seen," and which they end up using in order to get ahead in the stock market. To my great surprise, Carruth's version of the 'deincentivizing fug of unverb' even serves to reveal the characters' personalities--Aaron, a family man frustrated by the mediocrity of his existence; Abe, lonely and longing for a family of his own--in spite of the fact that these buttoned down (even in their most casual moments, the characters rarely abandon their standard uniform of black slacks, white dress shirt and nondescript tie), fundamentally unremarkable young men rarely react to shock or betrayal with anything more powerful than a sullen silence (credit, obviously, should also be given to Carruth and costar David Sullivan, both of whom imbue these silences with a significant weight of emotion).

When things start to go awry for Aaron and Abe, the film's plot goes from complicated to hopelessly knotted, and even after a second viewing I was left with more questions that answers. In the end I resorted to this Wikipedia entry, which neatly breaks down the film to its component timelines. Once I understood the film's events, however, I found myself even more hopelessly confused about its characters' motivations. At the beginning of this piece, I wrote that Aaron and Abe are primarily occupied with the acquisition of knowledge, but that knowledge isn't an end in its own right. For Aaron and Abe, knowledge is the tool that they, as educated people living through the frenzy of the dot com revolution, use to get the things they truly want--wealth, respect, comfort. Which is why each of them, in their turn, betrays the other, traveling further and further back into their past in an attempt to safeguard their possession of the knowledge of time travel. The climax of the film, however, arrives when Aaron carefully orchestrates an act of heroics--when the disgruntled ex-boyfriend of a mutual friend arrives at a party with a shotgun, Aaron rushes him. The voiceover tells us that Aaron goes through several iterations to create a perfect version of this moment, even though in the original reality, in which he didn't even attend the party, no one was hurt. "Don't tell me I did all this for nothing," Aaron desperately tells Abe right before the party's final iteration, but why did he bother to do all this in the first place? What does he--a man who wants nothing more than to escape a life of drudgery, to gain maximal returns from minimal investments--gain from all of his exertions?

In the process of decrypting Primer, I was reminded of another cult time-travel film whose plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense without the addition of external data, Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko. Kelly's film isn't nearly as well-plotted as Carruth's, and it isn't until one reads a booklet titled The Philosophy of Time Travel, which appears in the film and is an extra on the DVD, that its events even begin to make sense. Nevertheless, Donnie Darko works as a piece of fiction--albeit a manipulative, at times almost overwrought piece of fiction--even after a single viewing and even without any additional data (a truth which seems to have escaped Kelly, who squandered the opportunity to make a director's cut of the film by awkwardly interspersing the action with excerpts from the book instead of reinstating some beautiful character moments which had originally been left on the cutting room floor). It's not entirely fair to compare Primer to Donnie Darko, since the two films have very different aims. Primer appeals to the intellect; Donnie Darko to emotion. Both are excellent films, but at the end of the day Primer's missing piece is greater than Donnie Darko's. "How?" is the question most often asked by the characters in Carruth's film--how can they travel through time? How can they use time travel in order to profit? How do they manage to deceive each other? How do cellphones work?--but at the very heart of the film, there's a missing why.


Anonymous said...

I found Primer to be conceptually strong but irredeemably weak in execution. It struck me that Carruth was not only denying his audience exposition but that in situations where it would be just as natural to be generous with information, he opted to be difficult.

The film denied me context of any kind and consequentially there was no poetry to any of it, not even random, lone moments; there was nowhere to situate them in. And the plot is so diffuse I'm not sure it provides the necessary cohesion for thematic statements.

I don't know, I just found the writing in Primer to be, overall, structually identical to bad writing.


A.R.Yngve said...

I have PRIMER in my DVD library.

Actually, I think I understood roughly how the time machine in the movie works (within its active field, it causes the time traveler to bounce back and forth in a tiny "loop", finally emerging after a fixed number of "revolutions").

I don't have a problem with the characters' low-key emotions -- maybe they have a touch of Asperger's Syndrome, or a re even quasi-autistic.

I also appreciate (with a measure of frustration) how the movie conveys the confusion caused by repeatedly going back in time to alter events.

That is in a sense "realistic": the effects of time travel really should be very confusing.

But, having said all that, I found some of the subplots overly confusing : as a writer, I would demand greater clarity of storytelling.

In the end, PRIMER raises a question: Does time travel, by its very nature, destroy "plot" as such? (If you can go back and change things over and over, doesn't "plot" become pointless?)

In any case, PRIMER is the most ambitious time-travel movie I've seen, and I wish there would be more such films that rose above the idiocy of A SOUND OF THUNDER or TIMECOP.

Anonymous said...

>>>> within its active field, it causes the time traveler to bounce back and forth in a tiny "loop", finally emerging after a fixed number of "revolutions".

As I understand it, there's a fixed time for the loop but not a fixed number of revolutions. How the machine affects you depends on what part of the loop you enter the active field; if you set the loop for 6 hours and enter the active field after 3, at the point the loop winds backwards, you'll travel back 3 hours in the following 3 hours, to the moment you set the timer.



A.R.Yngve said...

Er... What you said. :)

A pretty original means of time travel, and makes more sense than the usual "instant time travel" of BACK TO THE FUTURE.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I just found the writing in Primer to be, overall, structually identical to bad writing.

That's an interesting observation, and on one level, not something I can disagree with. Carruth does violate some of the cardinal rules of good writing. He does exclude his audience, and works hard to prevent them from understanding either his plot or his characters.

On the character level, however, I felt that Carruth had made a very interesting choice. The dialogue and acting in Primer are strongly naturalistic - Abe and Aaron talk like ordinary people, not characters in a movie. Perhaps it's because I've known an engineer or two, but I thought they made a refreshing change from the movies' standard approach to tech geeks - wild-eyed, passionate, socially inept. Which, I suppose, can be extended to my experience of the film as a whole - I did sense a context to the characters' lives, and an ambience to the film which compensated for the lack of information coming from Carruth.

On the mechanics of Primer's time travel:

As S says, there isn't a fixed number of revolutions within the box. An inanimate object like a watch bounces from end to end because it has no way to sense that it is approaching a terminus point (the point at which the box is turned on or off). As the characters put it, there's a probability issue involved - at any approach to a terminus point, there's a strong probability that the watch will bounce back and a small probability that it'll emerge from the box. A living creature, on the other hand, can sense the terminus point and emerge from the box at either end, although I think the film strongly suggests that emerging at any point but the terminus points can be extremely dangerous (this might be what happens to Thomas Granger).

Basically, Carruth's idea for time travel is that, in order to travel through it, you have to experience time, in much the same way that we have to travel through space and can't simply teleport from one point to another. Within the box, however, one can choose the direction of one's travel - the direction of time's arrow - and thus emerge at a point earlier than the point of entry. Which is, I agree, an unusual and refreshing approach.

Ted said...

and listening to the commentary from Carruth ... is highly recommended

Has it been recommended to you? A friend of mine who listened to the DVD commentary said that Carruth just describes how they filmed the various scenes, and doesn't discuss the plot logic at all.

Within the box, however, one can choose the direction of one's travel - the direction of time's arrow - and thus emerge at a point earlier than the point of entry. Which is, I agree, an unusual and refreshing approach.

I agree that it's unusual and refreshing, but I don't think that the traveler can actually choose the direction of travel; the traveler merely chooses when to get off the ride, so to speak.

(As a minor note, I don't think the mechanics of entering and exiting the box actually work. Opening the box and moving in and out are not instantaneous events; they have durations associated with them. So, during the few seconds it takes to open the box and get in, the traveler would be overlapping -- and presumably disrupting -- the version of himself that's traveling backward in time inside the box.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I can't remember where I first heard about Carruth's commentary being vital to the understanding of the film, Ted, but the forum posters at film's official site certainly recommend it.

I don't think that the traveler can actually choose the direction of travel; the traveler merely chooses when to get off the ride

The traveler also chooses when to get on, and therefore implicitly chooses the direction of travel.

Think of the box as a train on a circular track, with stops at the 12 and 6 o'clock positions. The train moves in only one direction - clockwise or counter-clockwise - but a traveler who gets on the train at 6 o'clock and gets off at 12 can be said to have travelled north, whereas a traveler making the opposite journey will have traveled south.

I agree, by the way, that non-instantaneous entry and exit from the box is a problem, and should cause some sort of malfunction or paradox.

A.R.Yngve said...

H.G. Wells' original time machine went back and forth in time while mostly resting in one spot; the issue of colliding with your later/earlier self was never raised.

But let's not get bogged down in imaginary science: I think you'll have to accept a fictional time machine, warts and all, as it is.

What interests me is the consequences for story and character. I've mentioned how any classical concept of "plot" breaks up in time-travel stories.

If the time-machine alters the past, would the time-traveling characters' personalities change also? (Or change indirectly, from the experience of time travel?)

Ted said...

I agree with the train track analogy. Perhaps I was previously reading too much into your choice of words "within the box, one can choose ... the direction of time's arrow."

I might rent the DVD to listen to the commentary soundtrack, but based on the interviews with Carruth that I've read, I don't think his idea of the plot matches the one described in the Wikipedia entry.

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