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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Time Traveler's Partner
by Donald Levit

“Impressionistic” Upstream Color is beguiling or confusing viewers who, in its maker’s words, “recognize even if they don’t know every little nuance or feel they have the answers.” Its reception among the awed pompous has renewed interest in the Malick-slow Shane Carruth’s other, 2004 Sundance top-prized début, the annoying “impossible to follow” cult-status Primer.

In the Astoria, Queens, Museum of the Moving Image/MoMI’s tenth anniversary celebration of online Reverse Shot, the hundred-twelve-minute latter is shown followed by a Q&A with the director, who also served as script- and score-writer, producer, editor, production designer, photographer, publicist and distributor. (“He doesn’t trust what other people tell him,” explains Upstream Color costar Amy Seimetz.)

Shot for a begged and borrowed $7,000, this earlier movie looks it: grainy-ish, some parts more sepia than others, fuzzy on details and effects, sets going from a suburban garage-cum-workshop to a highway-side self-storage bin, acting running the gamut from A to B, and clipped incomprehensible technobabble for dialogue.

Granted, any précis of real life is hard to come by, but those who give summaries of either of this wunderkind’s DIY projects are reading in tons more than meets the eye. For the same bankroll, director/writer/cameraman/editor/coproducer Robert Rodriguez’ El Mariachi had a plot and entertained, whereas Primer is non-linear and non-sense, light-years from being “arguably the best American sci-fi flick of the last 20 years.”

In hard fact, until reading outside the loop, many probably are not aware that this “mind-bending psychological sci-fi thriller” supposedly raises moral issues like split identities, foreknowledge and stock-market ethics, or changing the present by preventing oneself from being born.

After this screening from “a print in my brother’s closet for years,” Carruth indicated that “before the machine, it was all about trust, the weight of what could happen if you were wrong with that trust.” Looking first like a microwave shell with doodads from a refrigerator backside, that machine is for time travel, serendipitously assembled by four young friends trying for an unclarified startup in married-with-child Aaron’s (Carruth) garage.

Two of them fading early from view, only he and Abe (David Sullivan) matter, close longtime friends whose relationship to each other and each to himself is theoretically tested and altered as they figure it out and experiment back and forth in time.

Minuscule budget led Carruth to learn each aspect in the process of putting together a movie, and his current, second effort at least does better at not being a succession of ill-cropped close-up faces. But “there is not a word in [Primer],” he insists, “that is not written in the script” as he taught himself while the shoot went along. The whole is in a way an unwitting metaphor for its own creation: two of the four engineers finding the capabilities of their invention as they go along, at the same time as they uncover their own inner workings. The fact that all converges to confound some out-of-the-headlines but also out-of-left-field intended shooting at a party near the end, is not a resolution but just a piling of smokescreen on top of confusion.

It is moot whether this is a short-i primer or introductory teaching-learning device, or else a long-i prīmer to ignite an explosion or pre-coat a surface. Not that it makes any difference; fanboys and some critics have made everything of it, so it can be both.

(Released by ThinkFilm and rated "PG-13" by MPAA.)

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