Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Primer.

criterion logoShane Carruth’s Primer is as stunning a début as ever seen in American independent cinema, a science fiction revelation made on a $7,000 micro-budget that went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.  Assisted by a cadre of friends, family and colleagues, Carruth wrote, directed, produced, edited, photographed, scored, and starred in this small film full of big ideas.  Carruth, a former engineer himself, plays Aaron, a small-scale inventor who, with his business partner and best friend, Abe (David Sullivan), constructs a device with the unexpected ability to move its subject back in time.  The pair promptly utilize the machine for their own ends, only to discover it is a Pandora’s box that compromises their trust in reality, their friendship, and their own physical and mental condition.  An indie hit that is simultaneously avant-garde and starkly realistic, Primer is a confounding and highly rewarding experience that demands repeat viewing.

Disc Features:

  • High-definition digital transfer, supervised by Shane Carruth, with DTS-HD Master Audio Soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Two audio commentaries, one featuring Carruth and the other featuring the filmmaker with cast and crew
  • Introduction by filmmaker Rian Johnson
  • New interview with culture critic Chuck Klosterman
  • Animated storyboard comparison
  • Production materials gallery
  • Trailer
  • PLUS:  A booklet featuring A. O. Scott’s review for the New York Times, Q&A with Carruth, and a new essay by film scholar Thomas Elsaesser.

With the positive reception of Shane Carruth’s sophomore feature Upstream Color (2013) at SXSW, this seemed like an appropriate time to propose a potential Criterion release of Carruth’s nearly decade-old feature début.  Primer immediately became a legendary example of American independent cinema upon its release in 2004.  Made over 3 years for a paltry $7,000, Carruth created an entirely credible sci-fi masterpiece exploring the possibilities and consequences of time-travel.  The film became a critical darling, winning the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, and Carruth became the poster-child for democratized film production compliments of cheaper, more available film-making technologies.  While he is quick to give credit to those who assisted him in Primer‘s production, Carruth in fact served as his own writer, director, producer, composer, editor, co-star, and occasional cameraman.

Discussing what occurs in Primer is a greater challenge.  Each essay or review of the film posits its own version of the total story lurking behind what is seen onscreen, and I’m frankly not convinced by any of them.  It’s not that they’re wrong per se, but that they tend to claim an authority or an exhaustiveness to the film’s narrative that Carruth’s slippery content elides.  What is apparent from the film is that two friends, Abe and Aaron, accidentally create a time machine while trying to develop a gravity-reduction field.  They construct a larger version and initially use the machine to manipulate stock purchases, all while trying to avoid creating paradoxes or impacting causality.  Eventually their interest turns away from material wealth and toward preventing a violent incident between Abe’s girlfriend and her ex-boyfriend (note: the success of Abe and Aaron’s efforts in this regard is not clear from the film, as are many of the consequences to their actions).  At the same time, it also becomes apparent that Abe and Aaron are using the machines independently of one another and that even others are using the machines without their knowledge.  Carruth constructs Primer in such a manner that we can’t truly be sure how many times the machines have been used (most synopses are describing minimum numbers of usages in my view), what exact iteration of Abe or Aaron we are observing, or how a given timeline is made to diverge by their actions.  In fact, the film’s use of jump-cuts within single scenes may even imply that the film is presenting an individual scene from the perspective of multiple time-streams.  If that sounds confusing or that I’m not giving enough detail to give that plain and proper sense, watch Primer.  I’m comfortable that the movie is confusing, that there is no sufficient level of detail to put that description on firmer footing (at least in this space), and that Primer has no single interpretation of what it presents – and that is precisely its point because ultimately Primer is not about time-travel.

As described by Carruth, the film uses time-travel as a premise to interrogate the nature of trust (hence the rather strange trailer for the film).  The time machine creates an environment where trust between the two men becomes difficult to sustain, if not impossible.  Neither man can be sure who the other is, how many times he’s relived the current present, what he’s done to reach that point (each man at least once assaults a prior iteration of himself to assume a primary role in his existing timestream), or what his intentions are for his present actions.  It’s not that Aaron or Abe are good or bad people.  It is that the pressure on each simply and inevitably becomes too much under the circumstances and there is no exit point to be relied upon to achieve closure on their dilemma.  Primer places the audience into a position similar to its protagonists by refusing to offer a totalizing narrative.  The viewer sees segments of both Abe and Aaron’s actions, but not everything done by either individual and certainly not in the order they occur.  When characters appear where they shouldn’t or express knowledge they shouldn’t possess, there is not always an explanation for how that came to pass.  How can trust exist in an environment where cause-and-effect becomes compromised and past actions can be written over without our knowledge?  Primer makes trusting problematic and embodies issues of suspicion and reliability in its narrative and its very plastics.

Primer Blank PosterThe Region 1 MGM DVD of Primer is now out of print and is commanding prices on eBay from $30 on up to $100.  That’s a good market for a DVD with some truly ugly menu screens and a transfer that falls short of the Region 2 version.  Primer is due for a good quality Blu-ray edition with a full compliment of special features.  And I love this poster art for a cover.  It’s simple, low-tech, and is a significant improvement over the cover art to the prior disc editions.

Credits:  The two commentaries and the trailer are holdover features from Primer‘s old DVD editions.  Carruth’s individual commentary is largely technical, discussing the production methods used and challenges faced given his budgetary limitations.  The cast and crew commentary is less informative, but is generally enjoyable, conveying the close relationship developed between this small group of individuals.  Hopefully they could be licensed over to a Criterion edition.  The animated storyboard comparison isn’t something I’ve actually seen, but the commentaries repeatedly indicate that the film was extensively storyboarded and that animated versions often appear quite similar to what appears onscreen.  I hope the storyboards and other production materials still exist for inclusion as special features.  A. O. Scott’s review and Carruth’s Q&A are both features drawn from the Primer website.  Rian Johnson attempted to retain Carruth as a consultant for a sequence in Looper (2012), although that never came to fruition (reports of Carruth being a “time-travel consultant” on Looper are greatly exaggerated).  Still, Johnson obviously thought highly enough of Primer to seek Carruth out and his experience with his own time travel film would make for an interesting introduction.  Chuck Klosterman’s essay “Tomorrow Never Knows”, included in his 2009 book Eating the Dinosaur, reviews the concept of time travel with particular emphasis on and fondness for Primer.  I enjoy Klosterman, he’s already a contributor to the Collection, and I’d like to see him with time to actually speak about the film.  His interviews in the Bo Jackson documentary You Don’t Know Bo (Michael Bonfiglio, 2012) are some of my favourite moments of that film.  Thomas Elsaesser, another friend of the Collection, might seem like an unusual choice for a booklet essay, but he reveals himself to have a soft-spot for brain-teaser movies, as described in his essay “The Mind-Game Film”.  Elsaesser traces this style of cinema all the way back to German and Danish silent detective films and the briefly popular “prize-puzzle-films” (or Preisrätselfilme).  I suspect that Elsaesser’s ability to provide Primer with a place in cinema history, tracing it all the way back to early film, would be a novel approach to what is otherwise considered a recent and thoroughly contemporary movie.


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