Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

50 years, 50 films: Primer (2004)

We progress deeper into the new century with an extraordinary time-travel adventure.

Sat, Mar 29, 2014, 11:16


If we were to rate a film’s capability to baffle on a scale from 1-10, Shane Caruth’s Primer would probably score about 9.8. It is up there with David Lynch’s Inland Empire and Charlie Kaufmann’s¬†Synecdoche, New York. But, unlike those films, there is not a hint of surrealism in the piece. That is to say if you try hard you can work out exactly what is going on. Rather surprisingly, Carruth’s belated follow-up, the magnificent Upstream Colour from last year, also has a stubborn logic to it. Get out a pencil and pen. Eat some brain-enhancing fish. Look, it’s as easy to follow as Dude, Where’s My Car and a great deal more satisfying.

YouTube Preview Image

If Primer asks a “high concept” question it is this: what would it really be like to travel through time? Forget all that stuff in Back to the Future and Hot Tub Time Machine. Four garage-dwelling nerds — shades of Jobs and Woz — discover a time-travel technique almost by accident. Eventually, one pair decides to use the machine to make money on the stock market. A tangle of twisting, intertwined, madly confusing stories is triggered.

In most previous time-travel pictures, the film-makers have followed one narrative line through the story. Carruth is constantly confusing us as to the order of events. Is the first thing we see the first thing that really happens? What does that question mean in a universe where causality has been so seriously undermined? (A graphic guide is available online to help you find your way.)

Made for peanuts, Primer shows the value of showing no compromise as a film-maker. Carruth does everything: writes, directs, acts, edits, composes, produces. It’s hard to imagine even a mildly commercial producer — however independent — allowing Shane to get away with this level of confusion. The lack of glamour is also worth noting. The machines are not sexy and slick. They really do look as if they were knocked together in some ordinary lock-up by jobbing post-graduates. Come to think of it, one can’t honestly call it a realistic time-travel film ¬†– though the proposed technology is plausible — what we have here is a naturalistic time travel flick. That was something new. (If you want some sense of quite how tight the budget was, you can, at one point, observe Carruth’s character mouthing the word “cut” at the end of a shot. No scrap of film was to be left unused.)

Not willing to dive into the grubby world of commercial film-making, Carruth took 10 years to follow-up Primer with Upstream Colour. We’re glad he was so dedicated. We are now able to identify something a little like a Carruth aesthetic: stark, clinical, uncompromising. Heaven knows what he intends to do next.

For 2004 we also considered Vera Drake, Team America: World Police, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Undertow, Sideways, The Saddest Music in the World, Riding Giants, 2046 and Tropical Malady.