From The Vaults

From The Vaults: The Mystical Dashboard: A Review of the Sci-Fi Film “Primer”

02.17.10 | Comment?

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The Mystical Dashboard: Primer and the Frontiers of the Low Budget

(originally appeared on the now defunct Some Other Magazine website in 2004.)

By Simon Augustine

When I was about seven, I went through a period of rapt fascination with “drugstore magic” – trick cards, plastic contraptions that pushed a spike through a quarter or made a small red ball disappear, floating handkerchiefs that barely concealed the thin wires that made them work – that sort of thing. (And of course I was often lost in the lore of the indispensable “Mad Magazine’s Book of Magic and Other Dirty Tricks.”) In pursuit of the arcane arts, I tagged along with, and became protégé to, a grade-school classmate who was had far more advanced skills than I, and whose parents were far more willing to spend money on elaborate magic kits (“59 Big Tricks In One Box!”) But the most fascinating thing my friend possessed, the toy that intrigued me the most, had to do only peripherally with the canon of Kid Magic, and this only because it shared the same dedication to ambitiously conning the mind’s assumptions with the most clumsy and mundane of devices. It was something he and his father had put together themselves in his bedroom – a kind of makeshift dashboard with dials, wires, gauges, switches and oval lights, all manner of things that could be bought in your average hardware store. The wonderful thing about it, and the thing that made it the most potent magic wand of all, was that I was never really sure, and I don’t know if my friend could communicate, exactly what it was supposed to do – it was literally all – and, more importantly, nothing but – bells and whistles ad infinitum. But obviously it had been assembled with great care, and loving attention to detail, in order to hopefully tap into some kind of important scientific principle or measure some essential force. This combination of exactitude in design and mysterious vagueness in intent, in my mind, gave it an air that became downright mystical.


Primer One-Sheet Poster

The fun is in not know if you know or not.

In the new science-fiction film Primer, two IT geeks, grown-up versions of my inventive friend from third grade, work feverishly on a version of that mystical dashboard in one of their garages, which has been temporarily turned into a science-lab. They labor around a collection of scientific paraphernalia – bells and whistles upgraded to the latest technological advances in applied physics and computer wizardry – which they seem to have thrown together in the desperate attempt to come up with something – anything – the will break new ground. In their workshop projects, there is the distinctive air of arbitrary configurations informed by superior working knowledge: their disciplined method is to consistently throw in everything but the kitchen sink and just find out whatever the hell happens. At first their motivation is mostly financial, along with the need to somehow escape from the toils of their jobs at a dull and nameless corporation. They start out with two other comrades, and their first project, examples of which we find them hopefully packing and shipping out to the first bidder at the beginning of the film, might as well be the scientific version of the widget – it is nothing revolutionary, and at the best will make them some quick extra bucks. But gradually, with further efforts, the two friends Abe and Aaron (played by David Sullivan and Shane Carruth respectively, Carruth also serving as the writer-director-editor and a real-life IT geek) begin to tap into a real discovery – something about force fields created in a small box that “magically” manages to increase the sum of electrical activity put into it. Soon their other two partners quickly recede into the background, as they pour intense energy into this promising new lead, shrouding their attempts to advance it in secrecy. There is a silly and almost whimsical quality about the way their organized high-tech junkyard abruptly codifies into a potent and slightly frightening tool – it would be as if my childhood friend suddenly found that his awkward device fully tuned into its elusive guiding principle, and we began transporting ourselves around his bedroom Star Trek style while his mother made dinner downstairs; but in Primer this development is grounded in such confident and unhesitant scientific language, making no attempt whatsoever to condescend to the lay audience, that we gladly make the leap of faith and assume that some real and ineffable bridge has been made. Now the question becomes: to what world does the bridge lead.

We breathlessly try to follow the maneuvers, intellectual and practical, of the two friends as they chase the implications of their strange black box. Soon they realize that by harnessing its superfluous energy, the box has the power to slow time inside its confines. The two inventors make increasingly large models of the box, until they build ones in a storage facility large enough to accommodate their entire bodies. At this point, any veteran science fiction/horror filmgoer knows that such a bold step is the harbinger of all sorts of nasty things. Here, the tragic catch – the inevitable Frankenstein factor – that emerges is this: when Aaron and Abe leave the box in which time has been delayed, and step out into a recent past, the future incarnations of themselves which they have bypassed remain and exist in the general time frame which comprehensively embraces all the versions of themselves – meaning, somewhat disconcertingly, that there are several Aarons and Abes walking around, all with the potential to bump – and more than that – into each other. With this strange situation, Primer impressively makes formidable intellectual strides in realms not limited to the scientific: needless to say, the possibility of interacting with alternate versions of yourself that have been produced in different times, and under different circumstances and moods, holds fertile ground for psychological speculation. And it also makes for visceral excitement: in one memorable scene, Abe and Aaron recklessly collide with the anomalies of time, and literally run into figure whose identity we are not sure of, but nonetheless makes us pleasantly queasy. The scene combines authenticity and the shocking “eureka!” of the best science fiction in a way that puts the jolts of your average suspense film to shame.

The two inventors quickly see the inroads to omnipotence time-travel allows, and try to capitalize on it. They begin to aggressively play the stock market with a unique advantage. But their baser motives are foiled by the immense complications of what they have wrought, and things begin to devolve into chaos and duplicity. As more is revealed, it is questions that multiply rather than answers for the audience: one of the mysteries we are left pondering as we leave the theatre is why three or more Aarons (or Abes) didn’t show up at their house at once (and what would “their” wife’s reaction be if they did?) Primer makes no bones about the fact that it demands more than one viewing to be sufficiently plumbed (it makes the intricacies of Memento seem like the plotline of a typical Police Academy installment). One of the achievements of the film is that throughout, what would serve as the obvious and narrative thread of a conventional film is held at a considerable distance from us. Reality, the nature of what is “really going on,” which we crave in spite of ourselves, is always kept viciously many paces ahead of us – thus replicating in style the dilemma and structure of the scientific method itself. Primer is remarkable in its ability to suspend us for an hour and a half in a place twice removed cognitively from any cohesive linear picture of what is ostensibly happening: always we are trying to figure out what is happening onscreen, and simultaneously trying to reconcile our interior calculations and anticipations of what we dimly grasp may be happening next, as our minds pathetically try to assemble the shrouded truth. It is exhausting. We feel we are catching the shreds, the discarded moments, the fallings-off, of the actual story. The layers of the phenomenal gather and accumulate and relativize until the noumenal becomes merely a far-off dream.

But, even with all of its metaphysical special effects, the most revolutionary aspect of Primer has to do with the diminutive proportions of its budget – a ridiculous sum of $7000. For most Hollywood productions, this would barely cover the donuts and coffee. And bad coffee at that. The film, which won the coveted Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, follows in the hallowed steps of other independent films that have achieved high ambitions on stunningly low budgets, and in the process advanced the alternative film scene which now so dominates the market: among the more notable examples, John Cassavettes’ Faces; the slasher film Halloween, which was made for less than a hundred grand in 1978 by John Carpenter; Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi (made for about $6,000); The Blair Witch Project (we all know how that turned out); and the newly released Tarnation, put together for the grand sum of $218.32 by Jonathan Caouette on an iMac. Some have compared Primer to 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of possible influence on the genre, and while it does not have the grand iconic sweep of that kind of milestone, it may well be a major watershed as far as filmmaking is concerned: because of technological advances in the medium – digital video, etc. – modestly funded auteurs have unprecedented access to major audiences – and the result is that the capital of good ideas alone has gone way up. It is breathtaking, from simply a cinematic perspective, to watch the filmmakers weave a fascinating and substantive narrative out of their threadbare production based – perhaps more than any other time in film history – simply on the force and power of their ideas. Carruth consistently demonstrates how the mothers of invention attending a thin production can enhance that power: the end titles alone are cinematically more interesting than your average Hollywood love scene. And the brief final scene is tantalizingly obscure and enigmatic; in almost any other film, it would probably anger the audience with their incomprehension – but after the tumult of stubborn, thick mystery that has just been witnessed, it comes across a soothing, blissfully ambiguous blessing: a soft exclamation point slyly insinuating the quicksand of the unknown.

There thus emerges in Primer an apt parallel between the simplicity of the actual production and the ramshackle scientific experiment it portrays. Shane Carruth has cobbled together his film from a spare assemblage of locations – in a garage, in front of a U-Haul depot, in the halls of a storage facility – that you just know were caught on the fly and most likely with a dash of charming persuasion in place of gobs of cash; and like him, his brazen pair of inventor anti-heroes thrive on a down-in-the-basement homemade aesthetic as the best path to elicit vast cosmic forces. My childhood friend would be proud.

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