I don't know if I loved it or hated it but rather was fascinated by it. My partner, a screenwriter with 10 years in development, hated it to the point of becoming vocal in the first ten minutes and having to stop the film. All her criticism was spot on: who are these people? Why is their dialogue so oblique? Why are they all dressed alike? Isn't that an obstacle to us differentiating their characters? What are they doing? What do they want? Why has it taken so long for them to articulate their goals? And on.
I think part of my fascination stems from the context of the film: made by someone who, for better or worse, had no formal education in film-making and taught himself everything from scratch, someone who reverse engineered film in such an innocent way that he thought you shot two character reverse setups by shooting a line of dialogue, turning the camera around and then shooting the next line.
That it was even completed amazes me. Yet I can't help thinking that, in the same way that talented outsiders using unorthodox methodology in Carruth's other field - mathematics - sometimes bring baffling but brilliant proofs that extend the field, so some film-makers offer highly individual craft; yes and theme and tone.
To me it felt like a SF story from the era just after the Golden Age, when regular short story magazines were publishing contemplative works just verging on soft/slipstream ideas. That its fans present it as a puzzle to be solved, or that after sufficient viewings one will 'get it' I feel does it an injustice. He could have saved himself his 8000 dollars (and InFocus their investment to bring it up to spec) by writing a short story but I don't think that was the point.
Watching a film with a well engineered revelation (e.g. Fight Club) allows one to watch it a second time in an informed state which throws all the scenes into a new light once the previous assumptions have evaporated. I love that construction. It's neat, it's closed, I get it. I don't think Primer is that kind of a film at all and that its writer/director has a science background misleads a lot of people into thinking its necessarily a hard SF story with an intellectual approach. It seems to me that its effects upon an audience are distinct in the same way some of Lynch's films refrain from offering the audience a position from which to view, assess and sympathise with characters in a disorientating and disturbing situation and instead attempt to elicit those sensations directly.
My fascination with the film, as I say, is bound up with Carruth's approach. Should it be? Should the film not stand alone? Yes, it should, if it were simply a story told in pictures in words. Yet if he is working like Lynch and others (and based on his other works I would argue that he probably is) then the themes he explores and the methodology he uses to do so are inseparable. His films seem to be films. They juxtapose images to give a sense of narrative and meaning. Yet there is always a sense that something incomprehensible is happening to the characters. It is beyond their comprehension, but in observing that all we can feel is superior to them, or pity them, whereas if we move into a state of things being beyond our own comprehension, we share that feeling. Like the entity in Solaris which seems to be familiar but slowly, horrifically, reveals itself to be alien and incomprehensible, I resonated with the disorientating splintering of reality that might very well result in a game of time travelling one-upmanship. Philip K Dick achieved similar results in his writing by bringing the effects of the story world into the domain of the text.
After his abortive CGI heavy second attempt, Carruth's third production Upstream Color seems to offer a more assured experiment in the tantalising enticement of the ever out of reach of understanding. Rather than Primer's hard SF narrative which calls for hard analysis, it's a tale of the erosion of will and personality and a dissolution of individuality and understanding. Again, one could watch the film as a spectator, follow the plight of the protagonists and leave feeling dissatisfied or choose to watch in a different mode and allow the discomfort, the unnerving alien sensation of what looks like a film but is not quite a film to affect one's mood.
Again, I didn't like it, I didn't hate it, I didn't understand it in the comfortable, educated way that I like to understand and subsequently dismiss it; but it fascinated. Both films are flawed, both I think fall short of their vision, Primer much more so due to time and budgetary constraints and as a first project. Yet seeing what he's doing, and hearing him in interview, it's clear he's not a fool, not stumbling around blindly.
Do we aim to 'understand' a piece of music? Is that the goal of all film-making, to create a puzzle that divides an audience into those who by education or hard work get it, and leaves others lacking? I don't think so. Perhaps some films in some genres work in that way. Others, the majority, function on an emotional level and are to be experienced. Some film-makers work in such a way. That they are not presented as art projects and projected in a museum just makes their gambit more subtle and more risky. There are also very few of them around as, I would imagine, trying to get them through a profit focussed studio system is much harder. Maybe that's why Lynch turned to digital video. Maybe that's why Carruth has distributed his latest film himself.
I could be wrong. He could be a hack who got lucky. Yet I got something from those films, something which I didn't get from a bunch of other recent releases.