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Primer (2004)

Have you seen Primer? I watched it just before I moved, and I have to say, my initially bad feeling washed away as I suddenly got the movie, understood what it was about, and followed it happily to its conclusion.

The thing is, it’s SF. It’s also deadly quiet, deadly calm, slow, and very geeky. Spooky and geeky. It’s spooky because it seems to me it’s realistic in a way that isn’t common in SF. It brings to mind the comments from Ritu’s LJ which I bookmarked on my other computer, where she linked to this essay by Pam Noles at the Infinite Matrix. The essay is titled “Shame”, and it’s very much worth a read.

I’ll pause here while you go read it in its entirety. Really, go ahead. I’ll still be here when you get back.

Now, then, that’s a fascinating essay. There are several cans of worms opened up by Noles’ essay, and the most important one — the issue of race in SF — is perhaps only tangentially linked to Primer — or maybe not. I don’t think Noles would necessarily take issue with the fact that of the four guys working together (or apart) in a garage lab, three of them happen to be white and one, apparently of Indian descent. (I can’t be sure, but it fits the American engineer stereotype.)

What’s more interesting to me in terms of Primer is that none of these guys is incredibly charming. None of them is excessively muscular, or outstandingly charismatic. In fact, they’re all sort of chewed-down, recessed-away geeks. They’re all just a little too quiet, a little too quick with the numbers, a little calculating and nerdy.

And really, if you think about it, if Time Travel were something that could be invented by one or two people in isolation, what other kind of person do you think would invent it? Look at the cover of SF novels: you see a lot of cleavage, a lot of handsome Buck-Rogersy type spaceship captains, a lot more Captain Kirk than Bones. And puts Bones aside — he’s high in rank because he’s also got charisma and pull — the real techies are redshirts. When he’s offscreen, Bones is dictating deadlines to his underlings, telling them that they need to Transposon Ultraphase Processor back online in the next 20 cycles, or else. (If you can’t tell, I don’t care for Star Trek. Some of the lingo will be off, but I think I get the tone right.) This is because Star Trek — the original TV series, I mean — represents, ultimately, a thoroughly American conception of the future. Only a handsome, sexy man could be captain; only an alien could be so coldly logical as to be the ship’s authority on science.

All of this speaks not only to a deep-seated distrust of science, and scientific authority, but also to a sense of intimidation that “normal” people feel around scientists. When I was flaying to India, I met no fewer than two physicists waiting to board the plane. One had known Murray Gell-Mann. The old, familiar feeling of anxiousness in the presence of clergymen returned, which was silly, because these scientists were just nice, normal people. One was a very beautiful younger woman working in Japan, and another was a friendly older guy living in California. They were normal people, I stress.

But in our media, scientists aren’t like that. They’re eggheads. They’re geeks. That’s all they’re allowed to be. That’s all a scientist can be, unless he or she is a mad scientist. (The mad scientist is a figure SF has been working to tear down for decades now.) I’m trying to think of a major SF series on TV where a leading character was more scientist than soldier. The wonderful series Regenesis comes to mind, but that’s about all I can think of — and even then, the lead character is painted as an excessive, almost caricatured maverick, almost as if to excuse the fact that he’s a scientist among scientists — he’s an egghead, but a renegade among the other eggheads, and thus a worthy protagonist. Star Trek is about naval voyaging transposed into space, and muscles and wile have normally mattered more than science; Firefly is mostly cowboy stuff, with moral dilemmas and worldbuilding as a focus — I don’t remember a scientist in the mix; Sliders was about a bunch of interesting people and a scientist stuck warping from parallel world to parallel world. Dr Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap relied much less on his scientific knowledge than on his emotions, his sense of wrong and right, and his compassion for others. As for the rest of TV SF, I suppose I may be massively out-of-touch — I consider shows like Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, and Farscape a waste of my precious time, so perhaps I’m out of touch. But my memories of TV SF seem to be saturated with images of buxom women and handsome, brawny young men.

I’m not brawny. I might not be black, but even in my white skin, I am also quite far from the type of person who would be featured in an older SF novel. I don’t mean to discard Pam Noles’ criticisms, which are valid and powerful and important. What I mean to point out is a much bigger deficit in the imaginative resources of older SF. It wasn’t just that nonwhites were excluded: I’ve heard many women tell the story of being eager SF readers when they were kids, but also always kind of wondering where the women were in these SFnal worlds. Remember the Foundation Trilogy, for example? I’m a musician and artsy-type, and aside from in Sam Delany’s writing, I’ve never found many characters who resonate with me much in that way. I, too, feel like I’m part of a group of people who, in most older SF, was basically “left out”.

But why did I come to SF in the first place, then, when I was younger? I certainly didn’t come to read about brawny Aryan guys beating the crap out of aliens, or about sexy princesses living on Mars. I remember looking at junior high school kids around me — I came to SF late, I know — and thinking it was pathetic. Junior high was all about brawn, about buxom, about all kinds of stupid things that only a few of us at the time seemed to really get didn’t matter in the big picture. (There’s some good writing about this in Paul Graham’s essay “Why Nerds Are Unpopular“.) As for me, I never really cared about who would win an armwrestling fight. I never cared much about whose hair looked better, or who got the buxom girl’s phone number. It probably wasn’t going to be me in either case, and that was part of the autocatalytic process by which I also learned that it was pointless to care. The apes would be apes, and the best I could do was avoid their stomping routes.

SF, for me, became a refuge because it was a place where this kind of stupidity happened, sometimes, but often didn’t matter, where it was lamented or occasionally, it got deliciously punished. There’s that line you often hear in stories, in movies, about how, “Most people don’t even imagine what it’s like outside of this place.” Well, for me, that’s what people my age, inmates in the schools I was also stuck in, seemed like. And for me, SF was a kind of emergency signal that hey, no, it isn’t everything, and there are people who do realize there’s more to the world, more to life, more to existence. There were people who worried about overpopulation, and not just for a few minutes one day when they bothered to think about it. There were people who were very worried about nuclear war, other people out there who were absolutely fascinated with computers and gadgets and the fact that these things were slowly, constantly flooding the world we live in.

But there was still a kind of infantile neurosis that remained in SF I saw in other media, and of course in the puzzling and sad world of cover-art. Maybe the characters were the same color as me — as a white person, I never much cared about that — I found reading about characters from other cultures always to be much more interesting anyway — but they were all wrong on the screen. There were passionate scientists in the books I was reading, people who at least were supposed to know about poetry, who knew something about music or art, but in SF TV or movies, the same sad old types emerged. You had big strong white Alpha Males. You had sexy young women. You had scientists out in the back, working on machines, occasionally popping in for commentary. I wondered, once, what it would be like to watch Star Trek: Engine Room — you know, just a shot miniseries on what it’s like to work as an engineer on the starship enterprise: the water-fabricator gossip, the awkward engineroom romances, the paperwork and the inanity of work most of the time… a kind of Star Trek-meets-The Office kind of a program.

What are normal people like in SF worlds? Normal people like us?

What I saw when I watched Primer was a partial answer to that question. I saw a movie with characters who, I felt deeply certain, were like me in this way. Doubtless, they’re cleverer than I am in real life; doubtless, they’re better at math than I am, and make more money as engineers than I do teaching language abroad. But these were guys who’d stayed out of the ape-runs in high school, who’d kept their heads down and studied hard. These were men who did not ooze charisma, who were a little awkward, but who also were grown up and married and had essentially normal (not to say stupid, or pointless) lives. Finally, some “scientists” or “inventors” who I could believe in. People who stumbled onto a scientific enigma, experimented with it a bit, who found something dangerous, and then asked themselves what to do with it.

The choices they made in the film were not purely logical. Emotion, and some very basic ones at that, drive their choices, their actions, throughout the story. These are scientists who are also people, but whose personhood doesn’t need to be amplified so much that their scientist-role is pushed out the window. One of the commenters at the IMDB page linked above said that the acting is wooden, “which turns out to work because that’s how normal scientists and engineers (and people in general) are, flawed communicators.” I would take issue if the commenter hadn’t added, the bit about “people in general”. Scientists necessarily “flawed communicators”, it’s just that science depends on a different communication system for the bulk of the dialogue that happens in science: it’s math, which is enough to put off most people from the get-go. More than “wooden”, the acting in this film seemed to be dryly “normal”, no glitter, no glamour, no BS.

And it’s a very, very smart movie. The way it deals with time-travel, with paradox, with the kinds of effects that such a discover — and the attendant temptations — could inflict on relationships, it’s one of the best treatments of time travel I’ve seen in film. And unlike Pi, it’s not full of pseudo-science conspiracy-theory made-up New Age gunk. Pi, to which this film is inevitably compared, was sort-of fun, the one time, but the mumbo-jumbo that ultimately turned me off it is basically lacking in Primer. Not that, you know, the film makes an effort to describe in reasonable scientific terms how time-travel could be possible… it just leaves that alone, and lets us see how some of the guys who were clever enough to invent it might proceed once they’d figured out exactly what they’d done.

And what was the budget? $7000. Most people I know could fund this, or could save up a year to fund it. Can you imagine spending a mere year’s savings on a movie budget? Apparently, they were so strapped for cash that they shot 80 minutes of film — the runnig time is 78 minutes — and, apparently, you can hear the director say “cut” under his breath in some of the scenes — I didn’t notice, but then didn’t I watch it in the cinema. However much this is all true, it only adds to my astonishment and admiration for the feat achieved in this film.

Finally, I say, SF with normal people in it. No longer are we normals left out.

I’ll have more to say on my thoughts about Pam Noles’ more central topic — the issue of race and its representation in SF — in my next big post, which should be coming down the tube soon. I’ll be tackling the issue from the only point of view I have, which is as a white male writer of SF. Now that ought to be fun, huh?

But for now, I’m off for lunch, and then some lesson planning for the rest of the week and early next week. Till then, best to you.

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