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A PRIMER ON “PRIMER”

Upon hearing the awards news from Sundance this past Sunday in Rotterdam, most of the buyers and sales agents at the Cinemart all wanted to know one thing from me: “What the hell is Primer?” The small minority who caught the film in Utah, though, had a different question: “Why the hell did this film win the Sundance Grand Prize?”

International film business types customarily feel somewhat lost and bewildered at Sundance, unable to figure out the shuttle bus routes or how to make it into the evening parties. But to be completely confused by what’s on screen? That’s a new one that made their sense of cultural alienation all the more acute.

Primer happened to be the first film I caught at the festival. I was drawn, perversely, by Geoff Gilmore’s catalog copy, which dubbed the dialogue “borderline incomprehensible.” Indeed, from its first frame, Primer plunges you into the world of scientific research as it follows a small group of amateur scientists who stumble onto a world-changing invention. And yes, unless you’re a physics and biochemistry dual major, the dialogue is impossibly hard to follow. Virtually every sentence is comprised of scientific lingo uttered in variations of the same measured-but-urgent cadence. At Rotterdam, I tried to explain to a Japanese distributor, who felt that her English wasn’t good enough to “get” the movie, that it was okay not to understand it. I couldn’t follow it either. Or at least I couldn’t follow the moment-by-moment progressions of the plot. I did get the film’s story of curiosity leading to exhiliration leading to fear as the “invention” wobbles out of control.

I interviewed Shane Carruth, the film’s writer, director, producer, star, editor, sound editor and composer at the festival, and our talk, which is a fascinating explanation of how this autodidact made the film and got it into Sundance, will appear soon in the magazine. One thing he told me though was how his inspiration for the film came from a cable-television ’70s movie marathon he watched while recovering from an accident. Carruth said he was fascinated by movies like The Conversation, The Parrallax View and, particularly, All the President’s Men. Most obviously Primer shares with Pakula’s Watergate docudrama a focus on process, a belief that people doing important things is in itself dramatic. Like All the President’s Men, Primer has little need for backstories and B-plots, and it doesn’t dawdle with girlfriends, wives or “relationships” other than those between the scientists. And there’s also no traitor within the group selling their secrets to the evil giant corporation. There’s just a few guys in a garage — and one storage locker — trying to figure out why they are are getting the results that they are getting.

For me, though, what’s most refreshing about Primer — other than the stunning story of its realization — is that it’s one of the first films that acknowledges what writers as diverse as David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers and James Ellroy have been doing in their fiction for years. Primer completely refuses to buy into standardized Hollywood — or even independent film — ideas of how drama must be created from fact-based source material.

I haven’t spoken to anyone on the jury, but I can imagine the conversations that resulted in Primer winning the Grand Prize. The Sundance awards usually are some sort of public reworking of the perennial “what is an independent film” argument, and in wake of Biskind book, which claims that American indie film has degenerated into its own crushing orthodoxy, the jury was compelled to award a film that is not only independent of Hollywood but also independent of the whole alternative system that makes and markets specialty movies. For Carruth, there was no Independent Feature Project, no Sundance Filmmaker Lab or AIVF, no Good Machine or Killer Films, no HBO or IFC, no Manhattan Film School or McKee Three-Day Seminar. There was no filmmaking mentor as exec producer or even, really, any producer at all — other than Carruth, who taught himself how to make the film by reading books (and, he told me, Filmmaker magazine). There was no indie-friendly “professional d.p.” — no Jim Denault or Ellen Kuras or Tom Richmond — behind the lens. Carruth lit and shot the film himself, buying fluourescent lighting banks from Walmart and checking exposure by testing his lighting setups in preproduction by shooting similarly rated slide film. There was no editing guru “fixing” the film in post. And making the above all the more impressive, Primer is a film, not some kind of “digital feature” that explains away its production shortcomings by huddling under the Dogme 95 umbrella.

Did the jury have any other choice?

More on this fascinating film in issues ahead.

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