Techland Screening Room: Primer – The Physics of Friendship

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Primer is not a work that’s trying to pay tribute, or mold itself after its predecessors. It is content being what it is: The brilliant product of one visionary outsider who wrangled up an $11,000 shooting budget and won the top award at Sundance based less on production finesse than the sheer audacity of his ideas. The sad story comes after Sundance, when the film was given only a marginal theatrical release that yielded little revenue, leaving Carruth with almost no momentum to use in developing his next project.

We spoke to Carruth about Primer and its aftermath via phone just a couple days ago, and we’ll post the full interview next week. For now, all you need to know: There’s definitely another Carruth project in the works. And it sounds every bit as unusual, and unique, as his first film.

Top Ten Scenes:

1:29 – The opening narration (and there’s some debate as to who’s providing this narration) sets the stage not only for the epic dimensions of the story, but for the white-collar, uber-intellectual work ethic that will define its main characters. I actually think the latter is a rather powerful theme in the film; that the human mind, working in conjunction with others and operating at full throttle, can accomplish the impossible.

Introducing us to the group, the narrator intones: “Some of this you know,” and then offers up a summary of their pursuits that is at once bold and chilly: “They took from their surroundings what was needed and made of it something more.” Talk about economy of dialogue; we are only minutes in and we already have some sense of this morally-conflicted group of above-average inventors. (Also note during that opening sequence: How far away Aaron’s wife is, how she is continuously blocked out in the frame by Abe, and how her noise interrupts the conversation that we’re straining to listen to, in hopes of keeping up with. Carruth, the director, is already setting up the family vs. friendship vs. science conflicts to come)

9:04 – The weeks pass in the workshop. This is such a minor moment in the film, but when I find myself thinking back to Primer, my mind’s eye invariably return to this musical montage – the image of four men, working into the wee hours, framed by the garage that they have crammed with their tools and gizmos. Not only a wise shift in tone by Carruth, taking us out of the rapid-fire sci-fi dialogue with some mellow music that allows us to fully contemplate what their work ethic says about this quartet, this sequence also suggests the significant number of experiments that are playing out in that garage. When Aaron and Abe later tap into something groundbreaking, it’s not a fluke; we know they’ve earned it.

11:33 – The mystery metallic box is turned on. Which is interesting enough in its own right, given that the viewer really doesn’t know what’s going on. But I love the way that Carruth takes the time to frame this as an experiment of the most guerilla variety (see the full clip below). Hoses are plugged in, little Weebles are dropped in, and a video camera is placed inside by two grown kids giddy at the prospect of seeing what their contraption will do. There’s a real sense of discovery here, as they look at the video monitor, unsure of what to expect.

I realize that I’m listing a lot of scenes here in the early moments, but it’s these early events that render the later surprises credible. This first test of the machine is integral, in making the machine a believable contraption. And yet most important is the way the experiment goes down: Aaron is eager to jump in, Abe screams at him to wait so he can check all the connections. All of the character development and twists to come begins in that very interaction.


20:20 – The film’s narrative grinds to a halt. Discussions of experiments and venture capital and patents break down as a genuinely spooked Abe talks to a skeptical Aaron, asking if he can show him something. It’s here where the duo first starts to understand that their box represents something slightly beyond their comprehension. It’s also the first time we see that earpiece in Aaron’s ear. For a guy who doesn’t seem to care much about sports, it immediately seems a little odd that he’s listening to a sports game (and note that he can’t tell Abe who is winning). And then there’s the line of dialogue that points to Primer’s larger concerns: “If you ditch work this afternoon and promise to do the few small things I ask of you, I will in return show you the most important thing that any living organism has ever witnessed.”

25:40 – The clock goes in the box. It’s clear that Abe understands something profound about this box, and he frantically tries to explain it all to Aaron, asking his friend to replicate his digital watch experiment. Aaron’s struggling; so are we. But as Aaron thinks the experiment through, drawing out the system on a piece of paper, and as we see a wristwatch being dropped in to the mix and emerging with a different time, time travel is made plausible, rational, logical, and mind-blowing. There have been plenty of time travel films involving people and elaborate contraptions, but this digital wristwatch in a metal box stirred more chills in me than any of those fantastical visions of wormholes and light speed. (continued on next page)

Video: Is Time Travel possible? We investigate; watch here.

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