A funny thing happened on the way to the future

27 Mar

Sumit Paul-Choudhury writes:

MY contribution to the first issue of Arc was a protracted deconstruction of what we boldly, if teasingly, described in our marketing as “the best time travel film ever made”.

A number of movies might slug it out for that accolade – hell, I’d take a crack at a case for Back to the Future II – but the one I had in mind was Shane Carruth’s 2004 debut Primer, which in my humble opinion delivers a near-perfect fusion of form and content.

Primer’s appeal lies in its uncompromising refusal to make things easy for its viewers, whose initial confidence that they know what’s going on gradually gives way to confusion and ultimately to hopeless perplexity. (In that, their experience mimics that of its protagonists.) The narrative, which is episodic and staccato to begin with, gradually becomes ever more disjointed, leaving both actors and audience to piece together the course of events from the disordered glimpses they observe.

It occurred to me, as I was brushing my teeth one morning, that this was rather like a form of aphasia – the neurological condition whose sufferers find it hard to understand or form language. Eager to commit this insight to print, I typed a few critical paragraphs into my draft, saved it to Dropbox and headed into work, where I opened the document up again and found – this.

As Neo would say: Whoa.

I did eventually unscramble the text; you’ll find it in more comprehensible form as “What hpapnes fi it atclluy wroks?” in Arc 1.1. (That eye-watering title was Simon’s idea, not mine.)

That wasn’t quite the end of the story. Arc, like any other new title, had its share of teething troubles; in this case, hyperlinks, which kept falling out of the stories in our content management system. (Three of the four typos I’ve spotted in the final version of Arc 1.1 are the result of broken hyperlinks.) We diligently put them back in each time – most of them. The ones that were meant to be in my Primer article vanished just before we hit “publish”. So here, as a public service, they are:

Dennis Lim’s review of Primer for Village Voice, in which he describes its style as “analog egghead”. And his 2004 interview with Carruth, from which the opening quote of my feature is taken.

Jason Gendler’s Primer: The Perils and Paradoxes of Restricted Time Travel Narration, which is what I was referring to when I mentioned syuzhet and fabula in my piece. (And here’s a review of his analysis.)

Attempts to construct a Primer timeline from the movie’s official forum, a near-canonical graphical version, and xkcd’s riff on it.

Of course, my main source was Shane Carruth himself. Open on the subject of Primer, he was more close-mouthed when it came to his forthcoming projects. There’s a little bit of detail in my feature on A Topiary, his long-gestating magnum opus, but here’s a nugget that didn’t make it in: his other in-development project, Upstream Color, is currently shooting. Watch this space. And time.

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