Primer: The Boozehound Cinephile / Ted Boynton
Boozehound Cinephile | May 9, 2008 | Comments ()
First a shout-out to reader Daisy. Daisy, your concerned comment about my drinking truly touched me, all the more because you reminded me of my little companion retriever Daisy, who is essentially a service dog caring for my mental health. Trust me when I say that my misanthropy — especially after the Pajibevents of the past three days — presents a far greater threat to my overall health than the primary medication for that malady, the aforementioned boozing.
Pop culture item consumed: Primer, Shane Carruth’s microscopically budgeted indie about two young engineers who inadvertently build a time machine. In the interest of full disclosure, while I had heard of this Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner several years ago, I was motivated to watch it by Scott Tobias’s excellent April 10 review of the film as part of the Onion AV Club’s series on cult films. I’m sure Dustin loves giving the free publicity — as if the AV Club needs it — but after Pajiba, the Onion AV Club is my favorite source of artistic media analysis.
[/shakes fist at heavens] Don’t fail me, Tobias!
Beverage consumed: Absinthe, recently legalized in the United States, which I had never tried before Tuesday. I’m not one to let FDA regulations or, for that matter, federal narcotics schedules stand between me and my feel-good, but for some reason, I had never gotten around to trying absinthe — shameful, really, for a cinephilic boozehound. Absinthe was banned in some Western countries in the early 20th century because of its alleged psychoactive properties, supposedly stemming from a component chemical, thujone. In reality, any hallucinogenic or other unusual effects most likely occurred because of poor distillation, resulting in various chemical poisons remaining in the booze at levels high enough to fuck your shit up but low enough not to kill you. We’ll see.
In any event, absinthe was actually banned for the reason that most drugs are banned: Someone had an agenda. Social conservatives in France at the time did not like the liberal thinking of bohemian intellectuals, so the conservatives banned the intellectuals’ drink of choice. Sound familiar? My fingers get a little itchy for my 12-gauge just thinking about it.
After a bit of research about absinthe recipes, I determined to try three different variations while watching the film: (1) a straight shot of absinthe, sipped slowly to discover the nuances; (B) the traditional cold-water-over-sugar-cube dilution, which results in the cloudy “louche” of Hemingway fame; and last, an intriguing recipe involving equal parts gin and absinthe over cracked ice. It’s only 6:00 p.m., and I haven’t had a drink yet, but I already can’t feel my face.
Summary of action: In the wake of my Sundance crush on Frozen River, Primer became relevant to a burgeoning realization that crept up on me over the past year or so, i.e., my central theory about the state of cinema in the United States, if not worldwide: It is not nearly as difficult to make a good film as suggested by the amount of execrable cinematic plaque clogging our cultural arteries. Was everyone else already up on this fact? The situation is downright perplexing in light of the number of micro-budgeted releases each year that range from competently executed to brilliant.
Let me hasten to add that I don’t at all mean to denigrate Shane Carruth’s staggering accomplishment in writing, producing, directing and starring in Primer; quite the opposite. In creating a complex, well-acted, mindbending sci-fi flick for $7,000 — seven-fucking-K! — Carruth jabbed a sharp stick in the eye of every overpaid studio hack, the scores of producers and directors who manage to spend anywhere from $10 million to more than $100 million on gargantuan projects that culminate in a huge dog turd. I’m not even going to pile on Uwe Boll or Paul Haggis here, since they have enough fellow inductees in this Hall of Shame to fill several stadia. None of these jackasses feels the mortification he or she should, however, since no one is held accountable in a real-world sort of way when a green newbie like Carruth posterizes them.
Before starting the movie, I re-read Tobias’s review while sipping two shots of straight absinthe in a crystal chalice obtained at the Alameda Antiques Fair just for this purpose. (I plan this shit out, people.) At well over 120-proof, the absinthe is quite strong, and my tongue is almost immediately numbed. Cool. Absinthe is in the family of liquors flavored with anise seed, like Sambuca and Uzo, though absinthe is more floral and herbal. Quite tasty, though I wouldn’t want to drink it every night.
As the film begins, Carruth opens on to the lives of two young inventors desperate to score big with a technological breakthrough that they can sell to an investor. In attempting to build a device that degrades gravity around an object (immensely valuable for engineering purposes), they inadvertently create “the box,” an enclosed electro-magnetic field that has two spine-ticklingly curious properties: It produces slightly more voltage than it consumes — the modern equivalent of a perpetual motion machine — and it drastically slows the passage of time inside the box, so that a watch left in the box shows that 1,300 minutes have passed when only one minute has passed on the outside. (I know that sounds like the opposite of what I said, as if time is whizzing by in the box, but what it really means is that during the blink of an eye outside the box, time is grinding away very slowly inside.)
Time for a short break to re-up the absinthe. This time I use the traditional cold-water-over-sugar-cube method to dilute the spirits. It really does create the louche effect, turning the liquor a creamy light green, sweetening the taste significantly, and of course sharply reducing the alcohol content per sip. I understand perfectly why they diluted it — an impure, dangerous absinthe would be more palatable with a bit of sweet, and the cloudy effect gives it a foggy, mysterious air.
Head spinning ever-so-slightly, I return to the film’s protagonists, Aaron and Abe, who begin to use the box to travel backward in time, a few hours per episode, to wager on sporting events and stock market turns for which they already know the outcome. Emotional issues come to the fore quickly, however, as both are tempted to use the box for more vague errands of personal justice. Even more distressing, what becomes clear as the film progresses is that one or both of them has tricked the other one by going back in time and pretending to walk through the initial discovery as if for the first time.
Back to the kitchen for gin and absinthe, one-half portion each, with a dose of bar syrup to take the edge off; now we’re getting somewhere. I’m no fan of sambuca or its other relatives, but this absinthe is pretty damn good, especially mixed with crisp, quality gin — Boodles in this case. Alcohol content is back up with this recipe, but that’s a good thing at this point, as my neck and lower brain are really relaxing into this mindfuck of a movie. Several references had mentioned that the film bears repeat viewings to really try to figure it out, and at this point I’m just riding the wave of Carruth’s virtuoso first-time performance.
Carruth’s literal home-schooling of big studio producers and directors — he shot much of Primer in his parents’ Dallas, Texas house — is all the more amazing when one considers that, as discussed in some detail in the Tobias review, Carruth expended most of Primer’s budget on 16mm film stock. Nearly all low-budget indies are shot on digital video, since it costs essentially nothing to shoot take after take after take. Carruth likely spent $6,997 on his preferred mechanical medium, leaving him to accomplish the following with three dollars:
- Writing, producing, and directing the entire project;
- Composing the film score himself;
- Building the cool, retro-looking science props for the film, relying on his own engineering background;
- Performing all of the effects and post-production work himself.
Even more amazing for a story with no dazzling CGI and zero margin of error for unneeded scenes, there is virtually no exposition, by which I mean none of the too-frequent indie trappings of characters standing around explaining the foundation of the movie to each other. The script never insults the audience, insisting that the viewer take responsibility for keeping track of a difficult story. There is no wasted footage, and every frame counts.
In contrast, nearly every studio film is bloated with multiple producers setting the stage for the director, along with a squad of usually incompetent screenwriters, an entire second unit production crew, and enough technical assistants and specialists to execute the Normandy invasion. Coincidentally, or not, nearly every studio film sucks like a junkie hooker trading head for crack. Indeed, the studios are downright Prioleauian in their consistency at suckage combined with an inability to acknowledge that suckage.
When I think about what Shane Carruth accomplished with $7,000 and his own sweat equity, I feel several competing emotions: gratitude as a cineaste for his demonstration of what can be readily accomplished; anger at the studio system for what is rarely accomplished; wonderment at Carruth’s simultaneous devotion to hard science fiction and fulfilling cinema; and finger-waving “nyahh-nyahh-nyahh” jubilation at his pantsing of the entire film establishment.
And it’s not as if Primer is some isolated instance of someone spending virtually no money and still making a film that’s head and shoulders above nearly everything released that year. I cannot find a budget figure for Frozen River, the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for 2008, but having seen the film twice, I have to think it cost less than $500,000 to make; possibly less than $250,000, depending on how much Melissa Leo took home. With relatively little money and a cast of amateur Native American actors, Frozen River told a gripping story very well and, in terms of a good use of my time, was surpassed in quality only by Iron Man and The Wackness among the 2008 releases I’ve seen.
Or consider Blair Witch Project, another AV Club cult canon selection. Like it or hate it, no rational person can deny the following facts: The film was made for peanuts, checking in with a budget of $60,000; legions of thriller/horror fans enjoyed the heck out of it; and the film was provocative as all getout in generating debate and analysis — a central and important purpose of cinema in the first damn place. Even if you don’t like BWP, how many mainstream films have cost 500 times as much and sucked 1,000 times as hard? (Hint: It’s more than 20 so far in 2008.)
What do these films have in common? Actually, the differences between this group and the vast, shit-flecked fleet of losers churned out in Hollywood by the garbage truckload are easy to spot. It may sound naïve or unrealistic to say so, but one primary difference is whether the filmmaker loves and appreciates film narrative. Most either don’t appreciate it or are simply too inept to capture it visually. The filmmakers referenced above appear to be digging the absolute shit out of the fact that they’re telling a cool story and as a result are careful with the viewer’s attention and expectations. Another major difference may be a corollary of the old adage that necessity is the mother of invention. These filmmakers all start at a point where laziness equates to either abject, laughingstock failure or No Movie At All. They can’t afford not to be creative, inventive, and careful in assembling their work.
I don’t want to underestimate a more cynical analysis, however: The makers of Primer, Frozen River, and Blair Witch Project had not reached a point of arrogant insider self-assurance, the kind of “we know what viewers want even if they don’t” mentality that results in alleged spectacles costing great gobs of cash and delivering virtually nothing in terms of originality, narrative tension, or genuine feeling. Given the amounts of money and intellectual capital available to mainstream filmmakers, Michael Clayton, Knocked Up, and Iron Man should represent the rule, not the please-please-please-don’t-suck exceptions. In the end, however, we get what we’re willing to tolerate.
How well the pairing held up: Fantastic — both the film and the absinthe are a touch rough around the edges, befitting a first-time director with no money and a spirit known for haunting the peripheral vision of various poets and artists. I highly recommend this experiment. There are a number of absinthe recipes involving other mixing partners, notably champagne, so there’s probably something for everyone.
Tastes like: The gin-and-absinthe was two parts mad scientist neck-sweat, two parts dark-woods-at-night witch potion, and three parts Martian blood. Not sure where that last bit came from, but it wasn’t Frozen River. I did not hallucinate, unless that Mel Gibson/Danny Glover cameo at the end wasn’t real.
Overall rating: Three thumbs up.
Bonus Mini-Review: Holy shit, did Dan in Real Life ever suck the mountains into valleys. This film had a lot going for it: a great concept with widower Dan reluctantly romancing his brother’s girlfriend, strong casting choices with Carell, Dianne Weist, John Mahoney — and yes, Dane Cook, who is almost always solid as a supporting player — and technically sound cinematography. And … and … ye cats, the last time Mrs. socalled and I laughed so mockingly at a film, other than our own sex tape, was — wait for it — Crash. By the 30-minute mark I hated everyone in the film, including Produce Pete, whom I usually love dearly. Mrs. socalled had left the room in order not to distract me with her scoffing. The cloying, Pollyanna family activities of Dan’s siblings and their children were enough to make me envy orphans; the idea that Juliette Binoche would start a film dating Dane “Yeti-Taint” Cook, then jump the tracks to a crazed widower with a mile-wide bitter streak … bwuh-urgle-urgle-urgle.
Steve, you’re on notice.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.