The Spooking Orb #1: Primer

Prepare your Jack O’Lantern, it’s Halloween week! Welcome to The Spooking Orb: All week, I will be blogging about scary things — mostly movies, but games & books as well.


Primer stars two guys in identical white collared shirts trying to build something in their garage. It’s unclear exactly what it is. An electrical invention that involves complex physics and energy-based jargon. Something they plan to sell, or at least get VC funding and mass produce. Of course what they eventually do succeed in building — The Box — does not function as they intended it to, or indeed function like anything else anyone has ever built before.

This is Star/Director/Editor/Composer/Everything Shane Carruth’s first movie. Later on, in Upstream Color, he’ll end up splicing fast moving, occasionally unintelligible dialogue into some sense of language. Individual sentences disappear but the context persists. I had never seen this before. In Primer, he performs another cool and innovative feat with language: Protagonists Aaron and Abe spend the entire first half of the film babbling. The film jumpcuts between the two of them pitching technical ideas to the other and flipping ambiguous switches and turning up dials. We understand the words they are using, but since we have no idea what they are trying to build in the garage or, at least if you’re me, no in-depth knowledge of electrical engineering, nothing they’re saying coheres into an actual method or goal. Instead, again, we merely get the sense of what they building.

The second half of the movie is the reveal of what their invention actually does. The Box is born. This movie was made on a shoestring budget so Carruth settled for a ducktaped, plasticky coffin that makes whirring, booming, industrial noises. It resides in a storage locker, just snug enough for a human to crawl inside. It’s frankly sinister.

At this point, briefly, I could smugly claim “I understand exactly what is happening in this movie.”. Then of course the sci-fi-paradox consequences of The Box take effect and space & time & narrative break down (well, for the latter, breaks down more than it had already). The delicate workings of The Box require a lot of concerned chatter between Aaron and Abe: “Is the box still running?” “When did you set it for?” “Don’t get out the box too early, I told you.” Picture these with an accompanying man nervously running his hands through his hair. These utterances make a little more sense than Act 1 technobabble. Not that much. There’s A->B diagrams at least.

It should be no surprise that the conclusion of the movie does not fully explain the plot, but there’s enough there to theorize just what happened (best recommended watching with a netflix partner to discuss after). I think if you watched the movie enough and plotted out the arching and re-arching plot strings, going backwards and forwards through time, you could probably come up with something coherent.

But these movies aren’t really to be understood. They’re to be sensed/experienced. Let the language and cuts and washed out filters and concentric narrative threads wash over you. You still can’t help but wonder where it’s all going, but also know that you won’t ever fully comprehend. I understand I am in a distinct minority in loving this guy’s movies; he’s only been able to make two in ten years after all. But as I’ve mentioned maybe dozens of times on this blog, I like to watch/read/experience skilled, ambitious creators try something new.

Show me something I’ve never seen before.

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