Felix Quinonez Jr.
We all experience movies in our own ways. There’s certainly no right way to enjoy a film. Still, most people would agree that the story is a very important cinematic element. But is it possible to enjoy a movie if you don’t really understand the story?
Some movies don’t offer clear-cut stories that get neatly wrapped up in a bow. They are instead thought provoking and make you work for the payoff. Often times, they require a second viewing. But in order for us to commit ourselves to re-watching something, we have to enjoy it at least somewhat. Except, how can we enjoy something we don’t really understand?
We all have certain movies that we enjoy even if we don’t fully grasp what they’re trying to say. We enjoy them even if we can’t fully articulate what it is about them that we love. For me, Shane Carruth’s work is a perfect example of this. Although I love both of his directorial efforts, Primer and Upstream Color I can’t necessarily say that I fully “get” them.
Primer, which was made for a mere $7,000 is one of the most complex time travel moves ever made. It’s a cerebral puzzle that all but requires multiple viewings. It’s almost painfully short on exposition and littered with scientific jargon. The movie does not hold the audiences’ hands but even at its most confusing it’s at least equally captivating.
The movie is about two friends, Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron, (Shane Carruth) who inadvertently make a time machine. The two had been working on experiments in Aaron’s garage when they realized that one of their creations had an unexpected side effect. The machine was intended to be used reduce an object’s weight but it instead created a sort of A- to- B time loop for the objects inside. The objects could travel from point A, when the machine was turned on to point B when it was turned back. But more importantly it could go back from point B to point A.
Abe modifies the machine to allow a person to fit inside of it. They initially plan to use it to make money on the stock market. But predictably enough, it doesn’t take long for things to go wrong. And before you know it there are multiple timelines and doubles involved.
One of the most refreshing things about the Primer is the time traveling elements of it. The movie’s time traveling has an almost “workman” like approach to it that isn’t usually seen in movies. But that makes sense because usually when people discover things, they are the more basic version of it. They are only refined over time and gradually. In Primer time travel is discovered in a character’s garage and by accident. Because of this it makes perfect sense that the movie essentially uses the 1.0 version of time travel.
The machine can take the passenger back in time but only to the time it was turned on at. They turn the machine at 9am and then they hide away somewhere private for 6 hours to be away from the world. They also use this time to read up on the stock market to see what stocks to invest in. At 3pm they go into the machine for 6 hours and come out back at 9 am.
It’s a very refreshing version of a time machine. And its somewhat rudimentary function works to make the movie more grounded. The dialogue is another great asset of the movie. So often movies are afraid that audiences will be confused so they have characters speak expository lines to explain things to the viewers. And it usually feels very contrived.
But in Primer the characters speak in a more organic way. People who could conceivably create a time machine wouldn’t stop to explain things to each other. So it might be confusing but it’s also more natural. It feels less like you’re watching a movie then witnessing a genuine moment of genius happening.
The movie trusts that audiences will be intrigued enough to watch it a second time to better understand it. And those that do will be rewarded for their patience. Watching Primer a second time is almost like seeing a completely different movie.
His second movie Upstream Color didn’t generate as much buzz as Primer but it was no less intriguing. The movie is about a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) who is kidnapped and drugged by a mysterious thief. He forces her to ingest a larva that contains a potent mind control substance. While under his control, she is persuaded to sell her house and transfer all of the funds to him.
When she comes to, she has no memory of what happens and is understandably shaken. At this point, she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth) who may have also been the victim of a similar experience. They slowly become close and start a relationship as they attempt to rebuild their lives and get to the bottom of this traumatic event. And as they get closer, their lives and memories begin to inexplicably blend together
But that’s obviously only scratching the surface of the movie’s story. Upstream Color tells a love story that is fractured and confusing but also captivating. It doesn’t so much feel like watching a movie but more like being trapped in someone else’s dream.
And like primer, it is almost impossible to fully grasp in one sitting. But not being able to understand these movies is also part of their appeal. They both draw you in but always leave the payoff slightly out of reach. Sometimes it even feels like scenes cut away too early leaving you scratching your head. It forces you to rewind or watch the movie again to see if you missed something.
And both movies are loaded with style, emotion and great performances. But Shane Carruth is hardly the first director whose work leaves audiences scratching their heads. And there is clearly a demand for thoughtful movies that make the viewer work for the payoff. Inception, directed by Christopher Nolan, was the rare cerebral movie that was also a huge blockbuster. It grossed over $800 million worldwide. And movies like The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick, attract audiences and have gotten plenty of awards recognition. And while The Fountain, directed by Darren Aronofsky, didn’t captivate audiences or critics, it still has its fans.
Viewers can enjoy the big picture of the story even if it’s hard to fully grasp all the details. And they are intriguing enough to make you come back to them to try to unravel the whole thing.
These movies make you feel like you are in a maze that you can’t help but enjoy getting lost in. You want to navigate its mystery because they are entertaining enough that it makes the effort worthwhile.