This was going to be a detailed discussion of the final section of “Tomorrow Rarely Knows,” in which Klosterman examines the 2004 time travel film Primer, but I’m stymied for two reasons:
(1) I haven’t seen Primer since its DVD release in 2005 and, although I watched it at least twice, possibly three times, it’s the kind of film — along with 2001: A Space Odyssey and pretty much every film Peter Greenaway has ever made — that you might understand after a couple of viewings, but if you don’t give yourself booster viewings every so often, the understanding slips out of your brain. 1
(2) My attempt to watch Primer last night was blocked by a reluctant wife. “Is this film going to tell me anything important about life?” she says. How do I know — I can’t even hold the basic plotline of that movie in my head for two hours! (Also — that’s the standard now for whether or not we can watch a movie??? I am totally going to remember this when the next Hunger Games movie comes out.)
So, in the interests of moving things along, I’m going to forego (re)watching Primer, and just respond to Klosterman’s observations. If you haven’t seen it, though, you should. Primer is a pretty amazing science fiction film, and, by the way, one that must be watched completely stone cold sober (or even better, augmented with nootropic drugs).
If you doubt me, take a look at this infographic that lays out the plot. This labyrinthine timeline is, believe it or not, actually enormously helpful in understanding the plot, which should tell you something about what it’s like to actually watch this movie.
What’s significant about the two dudes in Primer is how they initially disregard the ethical questions surrounding time travel; as pure scientists, they only consider the practical obstacles of the endeavor…. They’re geniuses, but they’re ethical Helen Kellers.
As briefly as I can manage: in Primer, a pair of entrepreneurial engineers build a time machine that can transport them about six hours into the past. They use the machine, initially, to make money off of the stock market, but things get complicated as they begin to use the box for their own selfish reasons.
Made for only $7,000, Primer is a perfect example of a filmmaker making a tiny budget work in the film’s favor, by making its limitations integral to the story. It features possibly the least impressive time machine I’ve ever seen in a film — it’s just this big box with wires attached to it — but this actually enhances the mundane realism of the film’s depiction of time travel.
The time travelers are nondescript, unremarkable engineers in white dress shirts and ties. The setting is a generic suburban “City” overrun with corporate parks. Likewise, the characters’ motivations are trivial and unimaginative. Having stumbled upon possibly the most significant invention in history, they use it for minor self-enrichment and petty interpersonal conflicts.
While Primer’s perplexing narrative puzzle makes for a maddening but compelling intellectual challenge, you don’t have to untangle the plot to appreciate the human story: what happens when people who have spent their lives floating in the moral and ethical vacuum of the modern American technocracy are suddenly confronted with a device whose function has real, and potentially catastrophic, ethical implications? (Spoiler: nothing good.)
When the complications really get going, with multiple copies of time travelers being created and then set to screwing each other over to advance their petty schemes, the world of the film becomes even more impersonal and dehumanized. As Klosterman puts it, “their sense of self — their very definition of self — is suddenly irrelevant.”
If I had to sum up Primer in one sentence, I guess I’d say that it’s a story about why humanity can’t have nice things.
I used to have a fantasy about reliving my entire life with my present-day mind…. I imagine the bizarre things I would have said to teachers in junior high. I think about women I would have pursued and stories I could have written better and about how interesting it would have been to be a genius four-year-old. At its nucleus, this is a fantasy about never having to learn anything.
LIFE 2.0 CHECKLIST (PARTIAL)
- Don’t dig a hole under the fence of your nursery school.
- Don’t punch that one kid.
- Do punch that other kid.
- In general, punch a lot of kids, and get punched a lot. There will never be fewer repercussions from physical violence than right now, so enjoy yourself. Also, you will avoid becoming the type of repressed, frustrated adult male that the novel and film Fight Club were created for.
- Convince your dad to buy the VHS machine, not the Betamax, despite the latter’s obvious technological superiority.
- Good novel ideas: frustrated writer takes winter caretaker job at hotel, goes bonkers; abused boy is recruited by wizard school; extremely pale teenagers fall in love, one of them is a vampire; randomly assembled nonsense about Merovingians and Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene.
- When your friends go apeshit over this new movie called “Star Wars,” be all “Meh, it’s just a ripoff of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress.”
- In high school, make friends with that one new girl everyone thinks is a narc. She isn’t a narc, but her brother ends up writing fucking Lethal Weapon.
- lternatively, just write fucking Lethal Weapon.
- The other new kid that everyone thinks is a narc? He actually is a narc. Report him to the wasteoids under the bleachers and score some brownie points, or at least some free weed.
- Smoke a lot of weed. Don’t worry about it. Just do it.
- Also, try to have a lot of sex, but only until around 1983.
- Assemble list of awesome rock bands of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Be into them before anybody. If asked, become their manager.