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Shane Carruth Interview
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  Brave New World
Primer
Dir. Shane Carruth, U.S., 2004

Shane Carruth. Five reasons you should remember that name: 1. Because the 32 year-old tired of life as an engineer and decided to teach himself film production so he could do what he felt most passionate about: tell stories. 2. Because he wrote, produced, directed, starred in, and edited a feature-length film using about 50 locations around Dallas, Texas for a mere $7,000. 3. Because that film went on to win Sundance 2004’s Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, the Alfred P. Sloan Prize (for a film that focuses on science or technology as a theme), and its end credits run about 90 seconds (his one production assistant was also his co-star). 4. Because that film, Primer, could single-handedly rejuvenate interest in the tired time-travel subgenre and incite Hollywood’s sci-fi factory to awaken from its creative deep-freeze. 5. Because, irrespective of Shane Carruth’s heroic story or the film’s potential effect on American cinema, Primer ranks among the brightest beacons of uncompromised creative light to hit the silver screens of Utah in recent history. It’s hard to believe. The posh festival that has steadily spiraled into a mire of mediocrity over the last decade finally got it right. Shane Carruth deserves every accolade thrown his way, and if Primer signals what we’ve got to look forward to, his Sundance honors won’t be the last.

Think revisionist sci-fi for the 21st century. From the first frame forward, Primer eschews conventional sci-fi tradition, most recognizably in its refusal to coddle the audience as we’re thrust us into a disorienting collage of sound and image. Four men in shirt and tie, somewhere in suburbia, plan, theorize, construct—they’re building something in a garage, we don’t know what exactly because the details of the project are lost in a whirlwind of minutiae including the introduction of a weeble and the deconstruction of a fridge. Carruth’s m.o. here is to forego any reductive attempts at explanation for piecemealed fragments of the construction process coupled with semi-recognizable math and science jargon; like laypeople with keys to the lab, his audience is challenged to sift through the dense mile-a-minute vernacular. Strangely, there’s never a moment when we feel like a part of their world, and that disconnect—paired with a marked lack of cinematic self-awareness—renders the whole thing disconcertingly believable because of and despite the plain fact that we’ve nothing of substance to believe in. It’s a strategy so successful that it leaves one marveling at Hollywood’s concomitant lowest-common-denominator explications which so often render the subject idiotic (see: Spiderman 2’s discussion of fusion). Submerging the audience in a gritty fantastical quicksand, Primer hurtles through this low-budget high-wire act before hooking us with a personal story Carruth says revolves around “the dissolution of trust.” Add to that the dissolution of a one-way linear narrative through an investigation of causality, and you’re starting to get warm.

It will be interesting to see how writers relay the narrative in their October reviews, as Primer’s storyline(s) is/are almost impossible to describe without drawing a diagram or dumbing-down the layered strands, both methods which eventually become self-defeating. It’s a film that has to be seen to be believed, then seen a few more times to be grasped. In fact, any attempt at a summation seems downright antagonistic to Carruth’s exhibited storytelling ideology. But for the sake of this piece, here’s a stab at a start: Abe (David Sullivan), one of the aforementioned men, wakes up disoriented on the floor of the garage after an evening examining the unnamed machine with Aaron (played by Carruth), who’s neither in the vicinity nor seemingly aware of the incident. Abe suddenly believes they’ve created something far more complex than they’d imagined, and sets out to convince Aaron that they should take a closer look, that he’s seen “the most important thing that any living organism has ever witnessed.” The two keep their investigation secret from the other group members and upon examining a protein growing inside the contraption, get professional confirmation that the machine can replicate years of real-world fungal secretion in no time at all. Though mildly intrigued, Aaron remains unimpressed—a rapid fungus producer isn’t the cash-cow he’s imagined the machine might be. But soon Abe takes Aaron to a field nearby, and shows him irrefutable evidence of their historic discovery. Before long, they’ve built two more “boxes” inside a storage center, large enough for one person to fit inside—essentially, short-range, one-way time machines which transport their occupant from the afternoon back to the morning of the same day in reversed real-time (go in at 3 p.m., wait six hours, come out at 9 a.m.). At this point, further narrative description seems truly futile, except to say that the remainder of the film delves into the application of real-life time travel and self-replication, by exploring the philosophical (“What would you want if you could have anything?”) through the reconstructed practical (“Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.”).

You read correctly: we’re talking sci-fi in the suburbs, over beers, with a wife doing laundry in the background. And Primer is, at its core, a story about two relatively average guys suddenly in possession of a not-so-average power. Using the machine to their advantage, Abe and Aaron make a lot of money in a little time playing the stock market, while establishing a precarious “symmetry” in their respective, and multiplicitous, lives. And though Carruth explores the ebb of their relationship under newfound pressure, his most humanistic tendencies ultimately take a back seat to his overt concern with causality, played through to an explosive third act which sees the structure on which their existential success rests begin to unravel. At this point in the story, expressive editing sends the Abes, Aarons, and the film strip they inhabit into an irrevocable tailspin which compliments not only the concurrent convolution of the film’s content but the unavoidable cerebral paroxysms of any attuned audience member. The most fascinating relationship Carruth undermines may not be between his two protagonists but between narrative and audience; if it already sounds like a mindful, it is, and that may be the film’s ultimate downfall with mainstream audiences.

If anything could keep Primer from achieving mass appreciation (besides the fact that it’s such a difficult film to discuss), it’s a formal complexity that’s often overwhelming and entirely without respite. For those who lack an ear for overlapping lingo-heavy dialogue (I recommend closing your eyes and just listening every once in a while), it is the kind of film which doesn’t sit easily and makes no apologies for it. Unfortunately, that also means it’s the kind of film that’s going to bear the burden of being “too smart” for the single-serving moviegoer, and may take a serious “I-didn’t-‘get it’-so-I-don’t-like-it” box-office hit. But those willing to open themselves to a subtextual exploration of power and the residual destruction of relationship, will find a passion for subtle drama through and beyond science, rooted in a revealing answer to the aforementioned tagline, “What would you want if you could have anything?”. For anyone exclusively interested in Primer as sci-fi, this is the one you’ve been waiting for, the one that makes up for all of the schlock that’s heaped on us year after year, nothing less than a new highpoint for a genre now fraught with hypothetical pratfalls and vast intellectual chasms. It also possesses a refreshing and unique high-concept quality almost wholly dissimilar to that implied by the term’s definition; that is to say, it’s the kind of high-concept that might come from the mind of an inspired grad student of physics rather then an audience-pleasing producer. While the foundational idea (two guys build a crude time machine and try to use it to their advantage) is, in actuality, as simple as any sci-fi pitch to date, the narrative deviates so far from its centerpoint that it nearly erupts with devil-may-care experimentalism.

These days, if it’s not penned by Philip K. Dick—and sometimes, even if it is—it’s pretty safe to expect a film as vacuous as it is predictable. But Primer is as complex in form and implication as Olivier Assayas’s demonlover, as progressively sci-fi as Chris Marker’s La Jetée, and handled with an unerring confidence Tarantino would envy. Carruth not only understands the theoretical technicalities of his subject but believes in supplanting the Hollywood glitz-glaze of bullets, boobs, and Ben Affleck, with content-stuffed mise-en-scène, precisely tuned relationships, and real theoretical investigation. His preternatural facility with the medium is doubly exciting when considering that the filmmaker wasn’t an adolescent cinephile with dreams of big-screen stardom, never attended film school, and admits to watching “weeklies” with his crew “to see if we were working the camera correctly.” For anyone hesitant to pick up a camera and start shooting that script collecting dust in the corner of their apartment, remember the Dallas engineer armed only with some super 16mm film stock, a meticulous mind, and a lot of patience: Primer is a film as visionary as it is visceral, as intimidating as it is intellectually satisfying. An amateur by definition, the new auteur on the block, Shane Carruth is a name soon to be synonymous with old-school independent spirit, and Primer’s well-deserved success, the first indicator that the Sundance film festival may finally be coming to its senses.
—MATTHEW PLOUFFE


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