Movie Night with Urbaniak: Primer

   came over last night, ostensibly to watch Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (United 93 had made him curious). Over burritos from Taco Plus (surely the best burritos on the west side) he told me about his experiences shooting his guest shot on Without a Trace and I told him of my adventures wading in the dark, scary waters of the 4chan message boards.

After dinner, Urbaniak quickly jettisoned the idea of watching World Trade Center, as I had joked in an earlier e-mail that we might watch All the President’s Men, an Alcott-Urbaniak touchstone, a joke which Urbaniak took with deadly, deadly seriousness. Both of us love love love All the President’s Men, one of the key cultural events of our adolescences and still probably what I consider one of the greatest movies ever made, easily in the top five. It’s the kind of movie where, for either of us, if we’re channel-surfing at three in the morning and stumble upon it on AMC or something, we can’t stop watching it, and that’ll be it for the rest of the night. And, since it’s practically the anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, we figured what the hell.

Unfortunately, the DVD of All the President’s Men I have dates back to the dawn of the digital age, and it became quickly apparent that it was a crappy transfer of an unrestored print, dark and muddy. About ten minutes in, I mentioned that I would go to the DVD store and get a remastered copy of the movie, and Urbaniak leaped in and said that he’d much rather do that than continue watching it now — watching movies on a high-definition projector on a nine-foot screen has turned both of us into frightful DVD snobs.

With both World Trade Center and All the President’s Men scotched, Urbaniak said “Hey, what about that low-budget science-fiction movie you were raving about?” I had, indeed, raved about Primer in the past, modestly touting it as one of the most incredible movies ever made. I hadn’t watched it in a few years (I saw it once in the theater, and probably three or four times on DVD) and was also eager to see how it would look on my big system. As much as I had praised it to Urbaniak, he assured me that I had not hyped it enough. The movie is flat-out unbelievable — a sheer delight and a heart-stopping sci-fi thriller from beginning to end, albeit in ways utterly unexpected and unpredictable.

First, there’s the fact that it was shot for, they say, $7000. Now, anyone who’s ever made a movie will tell you that $7000 gets you exactly nothing. For $7000, everyone is working for free and you make the movie on weekends in your living room. By all rights, a $7000 movie should look like utter crap, have non-actors giving non-performances and a script by a writer so untalented he couldn’t get any money to shoot it. None of this happens with Primer — it looks great, the script is one of the best I’ve ever seen shot and the performances are uniformly excellent — but, I mean, really, really excellent.

As far as I can tell, Shane Carruth, who wrote and directed the movie (and stars in it, and edited it, and scored it, and designed its production and sound) is an ex-engineer of some sort who used what is, apparently, his extensive understanding of technical matters to concoct this story of a couple of guys who are working on some kind of project in their garage and who accidentally discover a new application for their invention. What Wikipedia doesn’t tell you is that the guy is a born filmmaker.

When I hear “low-budget independent first feature,” you know what I think of? I think of Clerks, a movie with a loose concept and a rough shooting style that requires the logorrheic charm of its writing and the attitude of its cast to hold an audience’s attention. That ain’t Primer. Primer has a brilliant concept, finely-crafted writing that, on every level, commands attention, exudes authority and confidence, filmmaking that crackles with tension and vivid, ultra-natural performances from actors and non-actors alike.

Scenes are written without the slightest consideration of “inviting the audience in,” and cut to the bone of comprehension. The movie is about a bunch of wonks deeply involved in their world of engineering, and their conversations are full of — almost consist entirely of — long strings of technical terms as they debate this or that application of various mechanical processes. This decision creates incredible tension in the early scenes as the viewer struggles to keep up with the story, and also serves the dramatic purposes of the narrative, which is, essentially, about a start-up technical enterprise that goes bad. The characters, in some scenes, might as well be speaking in a foreign language, and so the viewer is forced to follow the non-verbal cues of the scenes closely — who is angry with whom, who no longer trusts whom, who is hiding what from whom, who is doing what behind who’s back. 

This is not merely excellent genre writing, this is screenwriting of the highest order.  This should be the goal of every ambitious screenwriter — to present moments of detailed, impeccably observed, unadorned, uninflected human interaction, and the camera happens to be there in the room at the time.  It’s one of the hardest things to do, but Primer does it over and over again, in a narrative that relentlessly escalates into higher and higher realms of speculative fiction.

But that’s just for starters. On top of being a screenwriter of the first rank, Carruth also knows, somehow, right out of the box, where to put the camera, how to cut a scene together for maximum tension and surprise, how to place actors in the frame, how to coax subtle, lived-in performances from his cast, how to design and dress sets, how to effectively score a scene, and how to act. It all feels ridiculously “real,” which serves to make its fantastical narrative that much more creepy and suspenseful.

On the other hand, I’ve watched it four or five times now and am only now beginning to understand what the hell actually happens in it — this is a narrative so full of impressive twists and mind-bending concepts that it makes Mulholland Dr. look like Flipper. And it’s all presented in the most subtle, least melodramatic form possible — go for a handful of popcorn and you could easily miss one or two key plot points. Carruth insists that the information is all there in the movie for people to figure out, and since he’s obviously about ten times smarter than me I’m sure that’s true. The nice thing about Primer is that its scene-by-scene filmmaking is so enjoyable (and its running time so brief) that it easily invites — no, cheerfully demands — multiple viewings.

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48 Responses to “Movie Night with Urbaniak: Primer”
  1. blake_reitz says:

    Agree on all points. I tell my friends (and will stand by it) that Primer is the best SF made per production cost that has been, or will ever be, made.

    I recently watched the commentary on Brick for the first time since it came out on DVD, and was suprised at how much of the film came together by pure chance (w/d Rian Johnson hardly lets a scene go by without pointing out how close it was to falling apart, combined with nearly no chances for re-shoots later). Primer has the feel that Carruth brought every engineering trick he knew to the table, dissecting films with an empirical eye, finding out what ticks.

    Never thought of the Clerks comparison, but now I can’t help but think of it as the Anti-Clerks.

  2. jestermotley says:

    Okay, I must know what Urbaniak thought of just the description of 4chan.

    Especially considering just how obsessed with Venture Bros /co/ is.

    Also, you finally sold me on Primer, I had been told by a number of people to watch it but was hesitant for some reason.

    • Todd says:

      Urbaniak was alternately amused and appalled by my tales of 4chan, as any rational, caring creature would be. As to my actual discoveries, well, let’s say they fall outside the purview of this journal.

      • jestermotley says:

        Yeeeeah, 4chan is terrifying. That’s why I’m going to do part of my thesis on it.

        I’m running out the door to grab some food for a friend, and I’m going to stop by 2 video stores in hopes that one of them have Primer, but sadly, I’m not in NYC just yet (2 weeks!) till then I only have bad chains to deal with.

        • Todd says:

          I am being totally sincere when I say that I want to read your thesis when it’s done.

          /b/ fascinates me as a subculture with complex rules and an undeniable unique energy. Which is not to say I want to live there.

          • jestermotley says:

            I’ll make sure to keep you posted. I won’t be doing the bulk of my work till next summer/fall. At which point I should have my site up and running again and I’ll be posting notes as I go.

            All of the anonymous forums are intriguing in that social research way. So, I hope to really produce something solid. It will be tough, but I’ve already started planning all the IRB forms I’ll have to file to make it work.

  3. Is Primer widely and readily available at a video store near me? If so, I know what I’m watching tonight. No, wait…scratch that. Tomorrow night. I have a mix tonight.

    Speaking of low budget, sci-fi first films, what’s your opinion of Pi?

    • Todd says:

      Primer should be readily available at Kim’s Video. That’s where I got my copy — for $7.95.

      I love me some Pi, it made me a life-long fan of Mr. Aaronovsky and occupies a commanding space, along with his other movies, on my DVD shelf, between PT Anderson and Ingmar Bergman. Pi and Primer share a number of ideas, but Pi is an overheated, sweaty melodrama compared to the crisp, finely-measured naturalism of Primer.

      • jestermotley says:

        Not to mention, at most video stores these days you can find the Aaronovsky collection of Pi, Momento and Requiem for a Dream all together for around 10 bucks.

        But for some reason, to me, that much concentrated sadness should NOT be allowed in a one/two disc collection. They’re all amazing movies, but if you ever watched those three back to back I have no idea what you’d have to do to get out of that funk.

        • Anonymous says:

          “…the Aaronovsky collection of Pi, Momento and Requiem for a Dream”

          Um, what?

          So far Darren Aronofsky has made four features that have been released theatrically: “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain.”

          “Momento” was a 2002 short directed by Manoel de Oliveira.

          • Anonymous says:

            Make that three features, with a fourth (“The Wrestler”) that will be released theatrically in 2009.

          • jestermotley says:

            Wow, that was my bad, thought I hit backspace. I always attribute MEMENTO (even got the spelling wrong, completely off today) to Aronofsky until I think about it for a second and then go “Wait, Aronofsky didn’t do Batman….”

            So apologies on that. BUT The Aronofsky collection DOES exist, but it is just, as you said, Pi and Requiem.

            My bad on that one. Apologies.

        • Primer is one of my favourite movies of the decade. It’s sickeningly good. Scenes from it stick with me years later. The weekend I rented it, I watched it about four times.

          • jestermotley says:

            And of course I get all ramped up for it and no one in my horrible town has it, which, isn’t a big surprise, but still I was hoping. So now its just back to freakazoid and or venture bros. I can’t wait till I’m in NYC.

    • cdthomas says:

      If you can wait, and if I get two copies,

      I will send one to Astrobase Go! as a love offering.

      ‘Tis the least I can do for this glorious season.

  4. travisezell says:

    Wow. I just also rewatched this for the first time in several years, after several viewings in theater and when the DVD first came out, and I too just marveled once again at how well it all comes together.

    What Wikipedia doesn’t tell you is that the guy is a born filmmaker. That sentence sums it up so well. Thank you for saying so.

  5. lupa says:

    Watching Primer a second or third time is better, by far, than the first time. I wasn’t thrilled with it the first time, since I didn’t understand some critical motivations. Watching it a second time made all the difference in the world.

    And the interior shot lighting… ohhh, the marvelous, Michael-Mann-esque lighting!

  6. ha!

    I just finished completing a film in 48 hours for the 48 Hour Film Project. Want me to mail you a copy? We are extremely proud, considering that we pulled the genre and three film elements at 7pm Friday and turned in our completely original product at 7pm today (Sunday).

    Our production company was called Emis Bas, a homonym of my husband’s and I’s last name Emiba (from Primer, as I mentioned before).

    • Todd says:

      You finished a feature in 48 hours? Congratulations!

      • chrispiers says:

        There is a time limit for your movie in the 48 Hour Film Project of 7 minutes. It’s still a tight schedule. I made one this year. It was a great experience.

      • mr_noy says:

        I too survived a 48 Hour film festival. I was the art director/production designer. Our writing team set the story in a psychiatric hospital and as of 6am we still didn’t have a location – we even discussed shooting it in the director’s house(!) but within an hour the theater department of a nearby College had granted us access and we had lots of industrial looking corridors to use.

        It’s a real pressure cooker situation and needless to say you are exhausted at the end of it. As you can imagine a lot of the entries are very hit and miss, ours included, but we did win a few awards (it’s not a competition per se. Every year somebody asks me to work on one but it’ll be awhile before I agree to another filmmaking marathon!

        • I bet that looked neat on film.

          One of the groups in our city is comprised of 9-11 year old kids. I’m pretty excited about seeing the groups’ work products.

      • It’s just under 6 minutes long, but I have a strong feeling it will win the competition.

        • Todd says:

          I’m sure I could find time to watch a six-minute movie.

          • That’s really nice of you. I’ll give you the elements we pulled, and I’ll send you a link/file as soon as there is something like that available (my husband is the producer/camera person, but there are restrictions about putting it up online since it’s a competition that premiers next Satruday . . .).

            genre: Ghost Story
            prop: keychain
            character: Walt Abrams (boat owner)
            line: “If you only knew, if you only knew . . .)

            (these elements are required to be in it, which is part of the fun in making it in 48 hours.)

            • chrispiers says:

              That sounds like a great set of stuff to pull! Here’s what we drew (first time ever for all of us trying to make a film):

              genre: Spy Movie
              prop: A sauce
              character: Lori Gardner (a designer)
              line: “I’ll be glad when he’s gone.”

              I ended up writing and acting. I wish there was stuff like this in D.C. more often.

  7. amanofhats says:

    For those interested, you can watch the entirety of Primer online (free and legally) here.

    I was blown away by the film. I was confident I got it until I started reading theories and dissections online. I realized then I had only just begun to understand it.

  8. 55seddel says:

    I just watched it for the first time.

    Blindingly brilliant!

  9. pirateman says:

    Dude! Thanks for the great film recommendation – I watched it tonight, and am about to watch it again. Being a hardcore nerd with good hunches, it’s really difficult for me to find flicks that are surprising and keep me on my toes, and this did just that. There were a couple moments in there that are really exciting and freaky – I can’t believe that this was this guy’s first movie. Very impressive. Anyway, thanks for the heads up… And don’t be shy about recommending other sweet movies!

  10. shocka says:

    Shocka’s Theory: Primer is pretentious garbage. Well-shot pretentious garbage, but pretentious garbage all the same.

    Please convince me otherwise. Begin with this:
    “On the other hand, I’ve watched it four or five times now and am only now beginning to understand what the hell actually happens in it”
    What the hell actually does happen in it? That wikipedia entry talks about 11 timelines or something like that. What?!

    • Todd says:

      “What the hell actually does happen in it?”

      Well, like I say, I’m only beginning to understand it.

      I’m sorry you didn’t like it but I find Primer to be the exact opposite of pretentious — I find it understated and self-effacing in the extreme. The “11 timelines” thing has to do with the (SPOILER ALERT) number of times the protagonists go back in time to try to “get it right,” affecting not only their lives and friendships but the lives and friendships of everyone around them, to the point where, if you watch the movie enough times, you begin to realize that, from the beginning, one of the characters or the other is subtly pushing the other to act in a certain way, already certain of the outcome. It takes the whole hoary notion of movie time-travel and makes it disturbingly, shockingly real in ways I’ve never seen before. I don’t know how many different timelines are ultimately presented onscreen, partly because I think that the use of jump-cuts is meant to tell us that the characters have gone through the story many, many times, although they haven’t gone through all the scenes all those times.

  11. marcochacon says:

    Added to NetFlicks Queue. I’d never heard of this …


  12. mr_noy says:

    When describing this movie to a friend I said, “Imagine that Darren Aaronofsky had been hired to write the first draft of Back to the Future – before the studio stepped in and said ‘Couldn’t our hero ride a skateboard and listen to Huey Louis? The kids today love that stuff!'”

    This is one of the rare movies where I was actually a bit lost but in spite of the technical gibberish (or perhaps because of it) I never lost my trust in the filmmakers because everything they said sounded so credible. Even the device looks so bland and jerryrigged that it looks kind of convincing. It’s a far cry from Doc Brown’s more entertaining but scientifically dubious De Lorean and ramblings about ‘flux capacitors’ and ‘jiggawatts’.

    Even in most intelligent films there is often a moment when a character explains something that is obviously for the audience’s benefit (like Harvey Dent explaining the RICO Act to a police lieutenant and an assistant DA). I can’t recall a moment when Primer does that. Of course, it’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen it. It might be time to check it out again.

  13. dionysus1999 says:

    I found it mildly amusing. It is amazing that they produced this movie for the price of a used car. It’s available on the watch now feature of Netflix.

  14. robjmiller says:

    Primer is one of the best sci-fi films I’ve seen in a long time, especially considering the low budget. Unfortunately the mainstream sci-fi genre has moved more toward action and explosions, and away from the concepts and ideas of more serious science fiction. Adaptations of great works by authors like Philip K. Dick can either be made into a classic like Blade Runner or a disaster like Paycheck. Even worse are adaptations of William Gibson works like Johnny Mnemonic or the upcoming Neuromancer (a sci-fi paradigm shift embodied in a novel) from the director of Torque which will bring the genre to a new low.

    Brilliant films like Primer give me hope.

  15. aaahhh PRIMER…

    I remember WAY back before PRIMER came out in theaters – seeing the trailer – and knowing THEN that it was something special. Because of it’s limited release, I simply forgot about it until the DVD was to come out. I rushed (to 3 or 4 stores as I recall) to get a copy and sped home to watch it with my favorite Sci-Fi movie buddy: my mother. Mom was my Sci-fi influence growing up and not many days pass where we don’t talk about some film, story or idea. Mom (and my) particular favorite brand of Sci-fi is… ooh, almost spoiled it… the TOPIC of this movie, and not knowing that ahead of time made the movie so much more amazing. I watched it a few days later with some friends, and they liked it (didn’t get it, but liked it.) Anyway – thanks for putting this out there – the more people who see PRIMER, the better. It’s high on my ‘recommend’ list.

    If I may recommend: (not associted with any of the themes or genre of PRIMER… but damn good:)

    The Counterfieters (2007 winner for Best Foreign Language Film)
    The Lives of Others (2006 winner for Best Foreign Langauge Film)


    • Todd says:

      Re: aaahhh PRIMER…

      I’ve seen The Lives of Others and enjoyed it very much — if “enjoyed” is the right word. My wife wanted to go see The Counterfeiters while it was out and time intruded on our desires — perhaps I will check it out soon.

  16. curt_holman says:

    I really like and admire Primer and should see it again — but at what point does its opacity (opaqueness?) become a problem? Does the latter portion of the move have to be as dense and complicated as it is? I have no doubt that Shane Carruth knows exactly what happens and and that at some point, it’s intelligible – but I’m not sure why Primer has to be so difficult at the end. It’s not like we’re sharing the point of view of an single character who doesn’t know what’s going on (like, I dunno, Videodrome). I’d think there’s a potential structure and point of view for this story that isn’t so forbidding.

    I’ve always thought that Primer was more faithful to the spirit of Philip K. Dick’s fiction than any actual film adaptation of Philip K. Dick.

    • Todd says:

      If you’re asking me at what point Primer‘s opacity becomes a problem, my answer is never. The thread of tension never breaks for me and I find it compelling even when I don’t fully understand what’s going on. And that is down to Carruth’s skill as a filmmaker.

  17. thunder24 says:

    I watched this just last night after reading the comments here and was glad I did!, How this movie was made for 7K is beyond me, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I especially like the mind bending elements that made it such a taut piece of filmaking. Again, thanks for the recommendation!

  18. Oh, and I we watched Primer again (for like the 7th time) a couple evenings ago.

    Still awesome!