Primer and the Future of Cinema

The new issue (201) of Interzone is worth reading for a number of reasons (not least the design -- it's the best-looking issue of a magazine I've seen from TTA Press -- the balance between design and readability is nearly perfect this time). Something that might not get noticed amidst all of the stories and artwork are some astute insights by Nick Lowe in a review of the movie Primer:
Primer's boldest achievement is that it's essentially a piece of post-cinematic cinema: a film that nobody stands a chance of fathoming on cinema viewings alone, and which can only really begin to make sense on DVD. In the US, a commented disc has been out since the spring, and the curious now have an abundance of plot-untangling fan pages online (some with gloriously baroque diagrams) to help make sense of the final half-hour, where huge chunks of essential story have been casually teleported into other times and erased. Recognising that ways of consuming and understanding film have irreversibly changed, Primer makes reviewing and fan discussion part of the basic process of understanding. In the end, obviously, it's for viewers to decide whether it warrants the effort to decode it; it's a bit of a shock the first time through when the film suddenly stops after an hour and a quarter and you realise that the revelations you're anticipating have already been dispensed. But it's exhilarating just to wrap your head around a film that has more plot in its missing scenes than most films have in their running time.
I know many people don't consider it exhilarating to wrap their heads around this film, but when I watched it a month ago I found it at first wearying, then, about half an hour in, addicting, because even though I really had hardly any clue what was going on, the pace and urgency of the acting and editing kept my bewilderment from feeling tedious. I then watched it again with the commentary track on, and began to make sense of it. A third viewing didn't entirely elucidate everything, but instead of seeming like a return to a familiar movie, it felt like watching a new movie made from the materials of one I'd seen before. The best summing up I've seen of the effect of Primer on an at-least-partially-sympathetic viewer comes from MaryAnn Johanson:
This is a movie that assumes its audience is geeky enough to be comfortable with unexplained techno-talk, to be familiar with the philosophical problems of time travel, and to be hungry enough for intellectual challenge to welcome a story that asks more questions than it answers. So naturalistic and down to earth that it feels totally fresh, and so confounding that it demands multiple viewings, Primer makes my nerdy, geeky little heart very, very happy.
All this from a film that cost about $7,000 to make.


  1. Funny to me, that the unstated assumption is that of course movies must be made, are made, so that the audience can understand everything that goes on in it.

    In this, Primer isn't different, it just requires multiple viewings.

  2. I of course enjoyed Primer and found it delightful and just strange. (At the theatre, at the end one audience member called out to everybody, "Now would one of you mind explaining what the hell this was all about." Everybody laughed.)

    I'm glad that people are taking the time to unravel Primer, but I actually enjoyed the disorientation and dizziness of it all. It is nice to solve the puzzle (if it is even solvable!), but it wouldn't really add a lot to my overall opinion or enjoyment of the work. Confusion can be an aesthetic mode.

    From a filmmaker's point of view, the real failing of the movie is its incompetent sound and use of mikes. This serves as a lesson to all novice videographers to make sure you get the sound right the first time, because it's next to impossible to change in postproduction.

  3. Another film with a similar disorientating feeling (beside Memento, I guess) was Mulholland Drive. I rather enjoyed watching it over again and trying to figure the puzzle out.

    These "puzzle films" arise partially from the videogame convention of circumnavigating an imaginary world until you "solve everything."


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