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comment by kleinbl00
kleinbl00  ·  2950 days ago  ·  link  ·    ·  parent  ·  post: A Closer Look: Primer

Second attempt at this:

    I highly recommend reading it if you've watched it a few times and are still lost.

What is it about Primer that people think if you don't get it the first time, you OWE the movie another watch?

I hated Primer. It wasn't confusing, it was muddled. It wasn't artistic, it was sloppy. It wasn't visionary, it was crap. There are few indie films as over-rated as Primer in my opinion.

So why bother? I'm honestly curious. What's the attraction? 'cuz for a crap film it sure has a bunch of zealots defending it.

Complexity  ·  2949 days ago  ·  link  ·    ·  

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.

kleinbl00  ·  2949 days ago  ·  link  ·  

In other words, *art brut.* I get that approach - I mean, I mixed Birdemic 2. I collect Richard Dadd books. And I get "this is a movie made by someone who doesn't want to make movies." My discomfort with Primer and its fans, I think, comes from the fact that they don't treat him like Tarkovsky. They don't treat him like Ron Fricke. They treat him like Chris Nolan - "here is genius, let me show you."

As an objet d'art, it's fine. It's a cheap meditation on fate and causality. That's fine. But people try really hard to make it something it's not - they try to make it cinema. And that, I think, is what really bugs me - cinema isn't that tough to make. Time travel stories in particular are pretty basic - "I'm going to mess with the storyworld rules to illustrate a point, here, watch." But Primer is so in love with the contrivance of temporal manipulation that it befuddles the message. It also performs so much sleight of hand with the basics of its storyworld rules that you're left presuming it's too smart for you (fans) or that it's a disorganized mess (everyone else).

And finally, that's what I'm left with - Primer is an attempt to make a movie that fails as a movie so it's passed off as "outsider art." Compare and contrast with Richard Kelly - he made a feature for $100k that sucked so he licked his wounds, learned from his mistakes and rolled up enough money to make Donnie Darko. Compare and contrast with Darren Aronofski - he made Pi for $50k and sold it. Compare and contrast with Clerks or Slacker. Flawed films that were nonetheless entertaining and executed in a way that requires no apology. Yet Shane Carruth finished Primer and said "yep, I'm good."

Slacker cost $23k back when you had to shoot on film at a dollar a second. It is every bit as free of narrative convention as Primer is. But it's a movie and nobody disputes that.

sartris  ·  299 days ago  ·  link  ·  

agreed, he's far better than nolan.

Complexity  ·  2949 days ago  ·  link  ·  

Yes, there's certainly a vociferous fan-base that elevates it beyond what seems reasonable for a cheap black and white flick with a confusing story.

But why? What is it about the thing that inspires such devotion? It may not entertain everyone but it entertains them. I have the same relationship with Sudoku, I can't understand why some people are so passionate about them. If some of his fans treat him like Chris Nolan I think they're mistaken. Nolan seems to revel in puzzle-making. I don't think that's what Carruth is trying to do. (Although, I could be projecting.)

I'd agree that it's failure passed off as art if it were his only attempt but his second production shares many of the same approaches. Either he'll continue to fail or he'll refine his technique to support his as yet unachieved aims. By feature three, I might be in a position to assert with confidence: yup, he really doesn't know what he's doing. But note that it's the fans passing it off as art - Carruth himself has never appeared to do so.

Still, I admire the effort, even if it is tainted by too-rabid fans and even if it leaves me colder than I think it should. I've made my share of rambling, incoherent and retrospectively painful indulgences. I have learned enormous amounts from failing and, thankfully, no-one will ever see them. He's a brave fool for putting them out there.

Expanding the conversation: as screenwriters, how aware should we be of the bounds of the medium? How participatory should the audience's role be? Where is the line between eliciting emotion and abusing the trust of the viewer? Why are we doing this weird, rarely rewarded, Tantalan work anyway?

kleinbl00  ·  2949 days ago  ·  link  ·  

    Expanding the conversation: as screenwriters, how aware should we be of the bounds of the medium? How participatory should the audience's role be? Where is the line between eliciting emotion and abusing the trust of the viewer? Why are we doing this weird, rarely rewarded, Tantalan work anyway?


It's one thing if you're making a movie out of your own pocket for $7,000. That's fine. Every other film ever made is a collaborative effort with other professionals and in order to spend more than you have in your pocket you have to borrow from others. This requires you to be aware of your market. This requires you to work within the system.

That's why we experiment with shorts and then knuckle down and make our money back on the features.

Sunrise, sunset.

b_b  ·  2949 days ago  ·  link  ·  

The same is equally true for Carruth's latest movie, Upstream Color. I didn't see Primer, and I won't based on UC, which was one of the biggest pieces of crap I've ever sat through. I feel like he was trying to make his audience feel like they aren't as smart he. Reading online dissections of the movie have only confirmed this suspicion for me.

onehunna  ·  2950 days ago  ·  link  ·  

I don't think you 'owe' a movie anything. I think you can not fully understand a film and still enjoy it, and want to know more about it. If you didn't like it the first time, then of course, I wouldn't expect you to watch it again. Thing about movies (and the whole art thing in general) is that it's subjective. But you don't need me reminding you of it.

I definitely don't think Primer is an all-time god mode fucking smash hit of a movie, but I do enjoy it. The zero exposition and grit lend itself well to the atmosphere of the film. I like how complicated the plot was (in classic time traveling fashion) because it rewards multiple views, which is something I like doing. I get the impression you work around/with film to have such a strong opinion on the craftsmanship of the film. Of course, everything isn't executed flawlessly, but I'd hardly go with 'sloppy'. If anything, I was impressed at what Shane Carruth was able to pull together with 7 grand. And time travel movies are just fun, I've always loved them. 12 Monkeys. Back to the Future. Timecrimes. That shit is great. So Primer is right up my alley.

But, I don't understand why me trying to in some way quantify my (or anyone else's) enjoyment of Primer or any other movie would make any difference--you thought it was bad and it's not like someone else's opinion could really change how the film affected you.

kleinbl00  ·  2950 days ago  ·  link  ·  

I'm not asking you to change my opinion - I'm asking you why someone who "didn't get it" should bother beating their head against it until they do.

I understood Primer just fine - I found it tedious, trivial and wall-to-wall exposition. Yet people love it. It looks remarkably like a $7,000 film. It's acted like a $7,000 film. It has the production value of a $7,000 film. And yeah.

It's sloppy.

Yet there's this drive around Primer fans to explain it. To expound upon it. To dissect it, remix it, represent it and retcon it in order to proseletyse for it. And that is what I don't get.

You liked it. I didn't. I'm not sure where the drive to make me like it comes from.

casebash  ·  2892 days ago  ·  link  ·  

A large part of the appeal was just how real it felt. 90% of scientists or engineers in movies don't talk like real engineers do. I thought that being in the situation where you understood bits and pieces, but not everything as a whole put you in the same situation as the characters were in - of having discovered the ability to time travel, but not being fully aware of all of the implications of this

Why do you think that it was muddled rather than confusing? It takes a while to understand, but when you do understand it, it all makes sense

kleinbl00  ·  2892 days ago  ·  link  ·  

Because it's not a complex movie. It's the Tragedy of Dr. Faustus by Marlowe. Yet people with no real understanding of narrative structure presume that because things are so garbled and take so many attempts to understand, it must therefore be brilliant rather than poorly executed.

thundara  ·  2949 days ago  ·  link  ·  

    So why bother? I'm honestly curious. What's the attraction? 'cuz for a crap film it sure has a bunch of zealots defending it.

One bit that tickled me in a happy way about it was the characters. They aren't written to be badasses, they aren't written to be geniuses, they aren't written to be showy with their language.

They are written as any silicon techie talks. As characters with their mind solely focused on a problem and in tune with each others' vocabulary and thought trains.

I can't think of any other other movie with that writing style, though admittedly I'm not a guru of all movies nerd. It's not exactly THE KILLER FEATURE OF FILM, but it's little elements like that that make the movie stick out in my mind.

Also, plenty of good movies aren't perfectly comprehensible the first time. It took me multiple watches of The Thing to figure out who exactly was infected as the movie progressed. Admittedly, Primer feels like a montage through different timelines after a certain point, and the ending is far less satsifying and obscure than it could have been, but a movie doesn't have to be impeccable to be interesting.

kleinbl00  ·  2949 days ago  ·  link  ·  

    I can't think of any other other movie with that writing style, though admittedly I'm not a guru of all movies nerd. It's not exactly THE KILLER FEATURE OF FILM, but it's little elements like that that make the movie stick out in my mind.

Which certainly explains why you never hear Primer dialogue quoted. It's entirely forgettble. The rule of thumb Terry Rossio put forth was that movie dialogue isn't what you say every day, it's what you'd say if you didn't think of the perfect response in the shower seven hours later.

It's a basic trick of verite - Blair Witch is the same. So is Paranormal Activity. So is REC. So is V/H/S. So is every cheap movie.

    a movie doesn't have to be impeccable to be interesting.

No, but it has to offer something beyond the other mediocre dreck out there in order to inspire such loyalty. It's in my best interests to figure out what tweaks people's nipples so. Buddy of mine made a movie for $6000 and sold it to Troma for $30k; Primer played at Sundance and ended up making about ten times that. Pretty much stands on its own, except that my buddy's film was about a gay yeti.