Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Primer

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

PRIMER

5/10

USA 2004 : Shane CARRUTH : 78 mins

OK, this review should start with a general introduction saying what the film is roughly about. Let’s say 50-60 words. Then there should be another couple of hundred words filling you, the reader, in on the picture’s synopsis. Without, of course, giving away the ending. Then after that let’s say another hundred words of verdict, saying what I liked or didn’t like. Finally a snappy little epilogue to leave you with a wry smile as you marvel at my concide erudition.

In the Company of Lem : PrimerTrouble is, I have great difficulty even getting to stage one. I have very little idea what Primer is about, either in its “events” or in whatever “meaning” was intended by Mr smart-aleck Carruth – who wrote, directed, produced, did the music and shared cinematographic duties (with Anand Upadhyaya). Slacker that he is, he delegated sound control to one Reggie Evans. Did I mention that he’s pretty much the lead actor as well, though David Sullivan rivals him for screen-time.

As far as I could tell, Primer is about the invention of a certain kind of scientific process. A form of time-travel which transports the subject back a few hours. But the individual continues to exist in the prior time-frame, meaning there’s more than one of him (and everybody who performs the process is male) running about. To say that “complications ensue” – as I habitually do when I can’t be bothered to go into detail – would be the understatement of the year.

It’s a 78-minute film, and I had a fair grasp of what was going on for, say, half that time. But there came a certain point when I realised I had “lost the plot” – to the extent that if someone had appeared at the end to say the reels had been inadvertently mixed up, I wouldn’t have been remotely surprised.

Now, the thing is, I knew going in that Primer is a complicated film. I’d read the famous comment by Carruth – who’s some kind of Maths PhD – that he expected audiences to understand no more than 80% on first viewing. So I tried to pay extra close attention to the dialogue, the characters, the plotting, the environments. Short of jotting down notes in diagram form on a clipboard, I honestly don’t think I could have been much more attentive. Nevertheless, after an hour or so I felt exactly like the fat schoolkid in the Far Side cartoon who says to his teacher “Miss, my brain is full!”

Now, there are people who reckon Primer is a work of genius. Mike d’Angelo of Esquire magazine, whose taste and judgement I hold in high esteem, is one of them. But I have read several other august critics who confessed their bafflement, or who admitted to walking out. So it’s safe to say that this film significantly divides audiences. There is much to like about the way it’s put together – apart from the incongruously conventional Thomas Newmanish score, the tone is strikingly original. The subdued lighting and poised cinematography convert everyday homes and offices into zones of sinister mystery, reminiscent of those weird “research institutes” that used to pop up in David Cronenberg’s movies of the seventies and early eighties.

science friction : PrimerThe “inventors” of the process are initially part of a team who all dress in shirts-rolled white shirts and loosened ties, a little like Mormon elders after a day’s heavy pavement-pounding. They look like the misogynist anti-heroes of a certain Neil LaBute picture: and indeed Primer could be summed up as a   Stanislaw Lem rewrite of In the Company of Men (‘In the Company of Lem?’) And not all of Lem’s work is fully comprehensible on first reading…

In retrospect, I wonder whether seeing Carruth’s mindbender at the end of a day’s heavy film-watching was a sensible idea. Perhaps its mysteries would suddenly unlock themselves on a second viewing, yielding the rewards enjoyed by D’Angelo and company. I’ll undoubtedly have the chance to see Primer again. But you know what? Life’s just too f*cking short.

15th September, 2004
(seen 24th August : Cameo Edinburgh : public show – Edinburgh Film Festival)

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by Neil Young