Primer: Time Travel at Cinema Sunday

For almost 10 years now The Charles Theater has been hosting a unique forum that starts with bagels and coffee, includes a film screening, and concludes with a guest lecturer who leads a question and answer session about the film.  The forum, which runs on Sunday mornings, is appropriately known as Cinema Sundays, and often showcases films that would be difficult or impossible to see otherwise.  This past Sunday’s offering, Primer, was the Grand Jury Prize winner at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, and also won the festival's Alfred P. Sloan Foundation prize for science-related films.  Costing only $7,000 to shoot on gorgeous Super-16mm stock, Primer is the perfect film for this sort of venue, because it introduces the work of a filmmaker who shows great promise, is not likely to get wide theatrical distribution, and requires explication by a guide who has seen the film at least twice.

To say that a film requires multiple viewings is to invite a certain amount of scorn and skepticism, even from audiences who are accustomed to heady art house fare.  There are plenty of artistically brilliant movies that require a lot of effort from their viewers, but still manage to tie up loose threads at the end.  At that point the viewer may want to go back and see the film a second time just to pick up on all of those subtle clues s/he missed on first viewing.  Christopher Nolan’s Memento comes to mind as a recent example of a film that becomes far more clear on the second viewing, but is more or less comprehensible after the first.  Primer isn’t like that.  It is almost impossible to get it on one screening, and yet one intuitively senses that all of the clues are there, as writer/director Shane Carruth has said they are.   Who knows how many will invest the time in giving the film a second chance, but at least Primer offers a narrative reason for asking the viewer to sit through the film multiple times.  It is a film about time travel and trust, and by re-viewing the film, we are experiencing the filmic reality the way the characters experience it—in multiple iterations. 

Primer begins with a quartet of young physicists wearing ties and button-down shirts, sitting at a kitchen table and speaking in a near incomprehensible techno-jargon as they brainstorm about ways to attract venture capital for some of their inventions.  Before long we notice that two of the young men, Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) have developed a separate project that doesn’t require the help of the other two.  After the meeting they begin working on it in their spare time.  Their invention is a device that reduces the apparent mass of any object placed inside it by blocking gravitational pull. But as often happens with scientific discoveries, an unintended consequence appears.  Abe and Aaron realize they can send objects, and ultimately people, back in time.

What separates Primer from numerous other movies about time travel is that the narrative focuses less on the monumental changes that human history would undergo if time were no longer linear, and more on the personal changes that the characters experience.  In the case of Primer, the time machine does not send the traveler back in time, but instead creates a “double” at an earlier point in the day.  The double has already experienced the day once, and can use that advanced knowledge to make money through stock market trades or gambling on basketball games while the “original” hides out in a hotel room.  For a while, Abe and Aaron follow this plan, but the temptation to do more quickly arises, and trust between the two main characters begins to erode.  To make matters even more complex, the doubles turn out to be untrustworthy. They are fully autonomous versions of the original character with their own free will to act on the original’s ambitions, and knowledge of what the original will say and do before he says and does it.  Not only that, the doubles can also send doubles of themselves back in time.

What makes Primer so challenging is that we never know whether we are looking at the original Abe or Aaron, or one of their doubles, and, of course, we have no idea where we are in time.  Fortunately, Cinema Sunday does provide a guide.  Dan Krovich, programming administrator of the Maryland Film Festival, had seen Primer three times before leading discussion on it at the Charles.  He gave a convincing account of the way the film works while encouraging the audience to see the film again.  That may be possible.  The Charles often previews a film at Cinema Sunday before it opens for a regular run in the theater.  Then again, some movies are screened only for the Cinema Sunday crowd.  At any rate, Primer is a short film, lasting only 78 minutes, and could be seen twice in less time than it takes to get through one screening of The Return of the King.  Primer is certainly provocative and visually rich enough to warrant several looks, and, as the title suggests, the first viewing is just a primer, giving a little advanced knowledge of what will happen in future viewings.

This article was originally published in my CineMatters column for The Baltimore View, November 2004. Joseph Christopher Schaub