Monday, November 15, 2004

Dots and Loops

You just realized that the movie you pieced together in your head was completely wrong. In fact, you had no clue what happened. Does it matter? The maddening Primer (B+/B) is a good case study. The movie is impossible to fully comprehend on one viewing. For some like Dan Sallitt, impressed by the film's astute observations of engineering geek behavior, or Mike D'Angelo, whose pull-quote addressing the subject is featured here, it hardly matters. Others like V-Mort just checked out because there's nothing that he can hang his hat on.


Strangely enough, my reaction changed radically, though my assessment (read: grade) remained the same after catching up to all the readings of the movie after the viewing. Let me explain: My first pass had Rachel's party as the casus belli for the time-travel. I wrongly thought that somehow in the first timeline, Rachel had been shot at the party, giving rise to Abe recruiting Aaron to prevent the tragedy. The idea has Terminator-like banality, but the time-travel-to-prevent-tragedy trope is a particularly potent brew, and this movie had an eerie, world-off-its-axis vibe that made it work.

My reading, though, was completely off. For those interested, the answer to what the fuck was happening may be found in the Primer message board and these two interviews with Scott Carruth, the film's creator. (Worth a read: Carruth's idea that the film addresses the abortion issue is especially provocative.) The plot actually pivots around Aaron and Abe trying to prevent the original Aaron and Abe from returning to the box, a point I didn't even get on one viewing. But I still wonder: why was Aaron so obsessed with Rachel's party and being the hero?

The best explanation is offered by Mike (whose 24.3 viewings of the film have made him the resident expert), who concludes that, beyond getting rich, Aaron's actually using the time machine to act out utterly mundane fantasies, like punching his boss or playing "hero" in an event that would have ended harmlessly even without intervention. The central observation of Primer isn't just that those with unlimited power will abuse it; it's that many of those with unlimited power won't know what to do with it, get bored, and will eventually marshall that power to fulfill ridiculously banal fantasies instead of, y'know, making life better for humanity and all that jazz. It's a profound observation, though, in the spirit of this month's theme of Showing Off How Well Read I am Even Though I Read Like Two Fiction Books a Year, If That, I think that Nicholson Baker's notorious time-freeze perv-novel The Fermata makes this point in a more provocative and, um, arousing fashion. (What it is a dude uses his time-freezing powers to do stuff like write erotica, bury it next to a woman on the beach, then spy on her as she goes home to masturbate while reading said erotica. Great stuff.)

Also, I can't help but dock points for Carruth's inability to make its points clearly. To be sure, Carruth is to be admired for not explaining every point to the dimwitted, but he takes his approach too far. In Primer, you can't distinguish the doubles from the originals, or figure out which timeline you're actually in. There's no set-up, not enough quick shots that will at least orient the viewer. Some critics deride those devices as "exposition" and applaud Carruth for ditching them, but these devices are part of the grammar of narrative film, and that language is especially necessary to a movie that's based largely on plot. Carruth's like a writer making statements like "I am. House." The reader might eventually be able figure out in context that the guy was in the house, but prepositions exist for a reason: so the statement can make sense without having to troll obscure nerd sites to induce the meaning. Let the viewer do some work, but let's not break your jigsaw puzzle into 1,000 identically-sized squares, okay?

Even more mystifying to some viewers is the sublime Tropical Malady (A-), which seems to me almost entirely comprehensible. Don't have much to add to Theo's orgasmic capsule, except to add that this is one of the best movies ever about the danger of attachment. Also, the way in which Joe sets up scenes by focusing on the faces of extras is so fucking awesome.