I’ve just finished watching Primer. More accurately, I’ve just finished watching it four times. Primer is (a) the cheapest and (b) the most complex time-travel film ever made. Shane Carruth, its producer and lead actor, made it for $7,000. That’s not hard to believe: the sets are garages, offices, and U-Haul storage lockers. The “time machines” are cardboard, duct tape, and wires. There are no special effects whatsoever. What makes it work is the restrained realism of the dialogue, and the sophistication of the camerawork and editing. It creates a sense of believability and tension that pulls you in. Something big is about to happen, the film keeps saying to you. Watch closely.
And yet Primer is completely opaque to a first-time viewer. I watched it once when it first came out on DVD in 2005, and I don’t know if I even got all the way through it; I think I was too baffled and put off to continue. I came back to it only now, in 2013, last weekend. My wife was out of town, I was too sick with a cold to go anywhere, and too tanked on Nyquil to work. So I watched Primer. Went to the web, where a sizable fan literature has arisen to explicate it. Watched it three more times.
And here’s what I’ve learned from it: There is a real value in not explaining everything.
This runs counter to my values as a science writer. I write about real things, complicated things. I feel a driving urge to make sure my articles and books are complete. Not in the sense of explaining every single detail, of course. Much of the work of a good science writer consists of deciding which details the reader ought to know, and of shifting skillfully back and forth between the details and the big picture. But I do feel that the story, as told, should at least feel complete. All the pieces should be accounted for.
Well, that is not the way Primer works. The dialogue and narration are spare well beyond the point of obscurity. The film cuts between different points in time with no hint that it is doing so. It is often unclear whether the characters Abe and Aaron are their doubles from the future, or not. Several major plot points are never shown at all. The film is not just difficult, it is willfully difficult. Had Shane Carruth asked me for advice I would have said, “My God, you have to fill it out. You need explanatory bits here, here, and there.”
Had Carruth done so, Primer might have been a more successful film. It might have been more widely watched simply because more people would have understood it. It might have done better than its $425,000 gross -- maybe multiples better.
And yet it might not have been a better film. Its spareness makes it an fascinating puzzle: opaque, yet compelling enough, at every individual moment, to make you believe that it will all make sense if you just think about it hard enough. This people have done, to impressive excess. More than that, its spareness raises the irresistible idea that every single aspect of it is significant. When a text hints at importance without revealing it, people turn into hermeneutic maniacs: they begin parsing every word, every line, every jump-cut. You see this in the fan commentaries, where scenes are minutely analyzed. (You also see it in 2001, another masterfully spare film.)
This is, of course, what happened to the Bible, an extremely spare text that has collected a commentary far larger than the text itself. Spare texts appeal to the kind of people who would like to believe, whether they admit it or not, that everything in existence has meaning.
For some reason, I have been attracted to spare texts lately. Followers of my Twitter and FB feeds will know that I have recently watched all six seasons of Lost. Structurally, Lost is something of a mess. It’s obvious that it was written by committee. It’s also obvious that the committee didn’t know where the hell it was going. But it’s spare in the sense that it kept raising mysteries and refusing to explain many of them. And it was fascinating to watch. Predictably, that gave rise to a huge corpus of attempts to explain it – to fill in the spareness, to show that everything that happened was in fact meaningful.
During my sick-at-home, alone-in-the-house weekend I watched another spare film: Room in Rome. It’s a lesbian film with a great deal of nudity. You may snort. My wife did when she came home and saw it on our Netflix queue. But it teased my intellect as well as my libido. The two women, who have met in a bar in Rome and are spending a single night together, tell each other their life histories. But they keep changing their stories. One of them says she is an actress. Then a tennis player. Then that she’s a twin. Then that her twin was abused by their father. Then that she was the one who was abused. It’s never clear when the truth is being told, by either woman. They’re enigmas to each other, and to us; for all their nakedness, they remain deeply concealed. It’s a much better film than I had expected.
Primer, Lost, Room in Rome: films from which I have learned that there are sometimes reasons not to tell everything. Carruth has just come out with a new film, Upstream Color, and I hope that's spare too. But I also hope that it's just a little more tractable than Primer. Otherwise, I'm going to need another weekend with Nyquil, sans wife.