Cinematic Musings: Primer, the Audience, and Shane Carruth the Turbo-Auteur - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
21Apr/130

Cinematic Musings: Primer, the Audience, and Shane Carruth the Turbo-Auteur

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Here are two of my favorite things about Primer:

  1. It took a second or third viewing after a friend pointed it out for me to realize that a comment about “rats in the attic again” made in an early scene is actually referencing an event of crucial importance—we just don't know it then.
  2. It took several viewings for me to fully comprehend the horrifying implications of what is happening in the very last scene.

My “favorite things” are not just those story elements, but the fact that Shane Carruth's storytelling is so assured and confident in the audience that he trusts smaller elements to reveal themselves. It makes each viewing seem new.

I was lucky enough to catch a screening of his new movie, Upstream Color, with Carruth in attendance.  One thing that struck me was how differently his two movies engage the audience while still acting like a vice-grip for the mind. Trying to stop to do something in the middle of a Primer viewing is bad enough—if I had needed to get up and go to the bathroom during Upstream Color, we would have had an embarrassing situation in the theater.

So what connects the two stylistically? There isn't a person out there who would argue that Carruth isn't an absolute auteur to the core (more on that in a bit), but if he is that, then what is the common creative vision between these two films? One is a straightforward, stripped down, realistic examination of time travel paradoxes, and one is a highly stylized, impressionistic free fall that features magic worms.

If there's one thing that's certain...

Carruth Will Not Abide a Passive Audience

Don't be this guy

The utter confidence is what I responded to so strongly the first time I saw Primer way back in 2004. I was impressed to see a movie so sure of the story it's telling that it puts the burden of explanation or interpretation on the audience. We feel almost as if we're watching events as ghosts or voyeurs. Aside from the phone call voice-over that carries throughout, the film more or less keeps its back to the audience.

You have to actively pull details from Primer, rearrange them, and attempt to create a literal interpretation within which to situate your own reaction. What is literally happening and when is important, and that we don't always follow that timeline is integral to the movie's central effect of disorientation. I've watched it upwards of 10 times and have seen 10 different movies.

Upstream Color, on the other hand, has a relatively clear narrative (though not one revealed in a linear fashion). To say “what happens” on a literal level after the movie ends is not that difficult, and it certainly doesn't need something like this. There's a bit of confusion while you watch as the pieces fall into place, but this serves mostly to put the audience off-balance so that Carruth's incredible collage of visual and sound elements across multiple scenes can substitute as the anchor point.

If the commonality here is to disrupt the audience's ability to logically process the story by denying them a conventional C follows B follows A sort of narrative, then the reason is to create an impression that something is being withheld, which the viewer must meet Carruth halfway to discover. This primes (HAH.) the viewer to engage with every small detail, every camera movement, every bit of dialogue, because therein may be the answers that will make the story “make sense.” It's a more-than-clever way of circumventing any wall of skepticism he may have to otherwise break through when it comes to some of the more out-there elements, and it allows him to focus on the larger ideas at hand, which brings us to...

Telling a Story Through Effect vs. Plot

Bad Signs

More important even than his technique of putting the audience in a position where they must constantly find and re-find their footing within the story, both Primer and Upstream Color show Carruth working to create an intangible effect rooted in a tangible product. You don't walk away saying, “That was an enjoyable and rateable story that built to a clear and satisfying climax,” or “Interesting—now I know how the 13th Amendment was passed.”

With both of these movies, you're left with a feeling, an impression remaining from the story that you can't quite articulate. After I first saw Primer, I felt like you do when you're a kid and you do something you know you shouldn't have, and now you have to deal with consequences you caused. By positioning scenes in which the characters start to suffer the repercussions of their actions before they (or we) fully realize what they've done—see the ominous scene where they realize Thomas Granger parked outside Abe's house with several days' facial hair growth, despite having seen him that afternoon clean shaven—Carruth implicates the audience in the characters' feelings of dread.

He is then able to show us fragments of scenes that jump around disjointedly in time—the multiple versions of the party with the gunman are huge here—and rather than our primary concern being the narrative, these scenes serve to heighten our feeling that something terrible has happened. Rather than getting caught up on plot details, we (like the characters and/or kids trying to hide their mistakes) focus frantically on “fixing” whatever has happened, and we don't even know what that is. This is what sticks with the viewer after the movie is done, and while the same message regarding the consequences of ethical carelessness could come from a more traditional delivery of the narrative, we would understand it more like a lesson that way. Carruth's style is “showing rather than telling” taken to 11.

In order to make the audience feel the message as opposed to just intellectually understanding what they're supposed to take away, and to do so without completely obliterating a narrative and moving into entirely abstract territory, he must maintain intense control over not just the planning of the story, but over every aspect of its execution, and in order to yield this level of complete control...

Shane Carruth Must Be a Superhero

Learing along with the characters

This is where all of this has been heading. Many writer/directors who we consider auteurs are “recognizable” from their films—listen to any scene from a Tarantino movie or check out the framing in a domestic scene from Kurosawa—but this doesn't mean there aren't many other hands on the finished product. Even if such a filmmaker uses the same editor on all their films or returns to the same person to do each score, you are still getting elements of the final movie that are at best interpretations of what the director had in his head when envisioning it initially.

You don't have that with Primer or Upstream Color because Shane Carruth literally does everything. He learned how edit films the first time around, concerned that Primer not look amateurish. Wanting to make sure that the movie was released and seen on his terms, he learned the ins and outs of film distribution for Upstream Color, which famously went to Sundance without the intention of being sold. He is the cinematographer for his films, so we know that what we see onscreen is exactly as he envisioned it in the script. He taught himself music so that he could write the score for both movies. Listen to the Upstream Color soundtrack. Self taught. Superhero.

But all of this makes sense when you consider how incredibly important it is that every single detail of his films cohere in just the right way. The editing probably plays the biggest part in Primer when it comes to aspects of a movie that would typically be handed off, because it's essential to creating the uneasy effect of the later scenes. Upstream Color, on the other hand, often requires an incredibly complex union of editing, sound design, cinematography, and the score to produce what seems like a fluid, unified sequence out of multiple disjointed scenes. One of the motifs of the film is how chopped up clips of different scenes—a man taking sound recordings in a forest and a separate person working in an office, for example—demonstrate unity by mirroring certain actions and sounds. I can't imagine Carruth being able to create the effect he does in these sequences without absolute control over each of these elements.

He said at the screening that while editing the film together he was often surprised to find that shots he thought must have been happy accidents were actually carefully planned and blocked in pre-production. Hearing that the finished product didn't “come together” in the editing room but rather is a very accurate version of what he initially put on the page is incredibly impressive. Comparisons have already been made to Tree of Life, but imagine if that film was scripted exactly as it plays (“the camera drifts to the side and aims to the sky—it appears the operator has fallen asleep.”)

What's Next?

Super handwriting at least

One certainty that apparently came out of his effort to get big-budget Hollywood funding for his cancelled project A Topiary is that Carruth will continue to be a one-man film crew for the foreseeable future. Asked if he has considered crowd-funding options like Kickstarter to raise money for more demanding projects, he responded with a lukewarm maybe. “I like the idea of doing something transactional,” he said, toying with the idea of allowing people to contribute $15-30 with the reward being a DVD or Blu-Ray copy of the movie 18 months later, “but giving behind-the-scenes passes or putting people's names in the credits, I just... [shakes his head]”

This isn't a surprise for someone who has managed to keep as much creative control as humanly possible over his films, and who I imagine would view such intrusions as a compromise of the creative process. Funding doesn't seem to be a concern for Carruth at this point, however, as he stated he is finished with his next script and ready to begin production soon. He described the realization that he won't ever work within the Hollywood establishment as a relief, and if that means we continue to get films like his first two, then I agree.

Posted by Kyle Miner

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