Primer

As Dave wrote in the last blog, welcome to all the new students. Induction is a busy week, and you can be bombarded with a lot of information, but don’t worry we are here to help.

One of the activities we’ll be doing in the first week is the induction project. This is only meant to be a bit of fun and a way of us getting to know each other, so don’t worry about it too much. What we do in RPE is meet up at a pub (the good bit) and watch a film together (perhaps the not so good bit). The film we’re going to watch this year is Primer. We chose this film because no-one understands what it is about (also I lent this film to Dave for 3 years and he never watched it, so I thought this would be the only way to get him to do so). So your task is simple: explain it to us!

To get the ball rolling, I thought I would give it a go. First of all why do I like this film (by the way you might hate it, which is just as interesting, though you’d have to have reason)? It’s not a Hollywood film for sure.  If you watch with those eyes, then you’re going to be disappointed. I don’t have a problem with that. I like Hollywood films (I thought the last Star Trek was OK, and I like Iron Man 3), but I also like independent films because they make me think more. This film was made by Shane Carruth and friends for supposedly only $7,000. I love the idea that you could make a Sci-Fi film for that little money! Maybe the greatest lesson of this film is go out and create something for yourself.

At the heart of the film is what is known as the ‘Grandfather Paradox’. If I could go back into the past and kill my grandfather, then would I still exist? But if I had done so, how would I have gone back into the past to kill him in the first place? The twist on this theme in this film is that the person who goes back into the past, and the person in the past continue to exist. So what we get is a whole series of doppelgangers and this explains the narrative complexity. The filmmaker does not tell you which version of whom is on the screen at anyone time (as we say in film and literary theory we have an ‘unreliable narrator’).

Myself, I can only work this out on paper with a pen or pencil (and you can find really complex diagrams on the web if you want to), but I’m going to give it ago here (I found Jason Gendler’s article really useful). What we get our multiple versions of the same person (of whom we do not know which one is which). Thus for the main character we get Aaron1, Aaron2, and Aaron 3. So Aaron1 goes back in time and we get Aaron2 and Aaron 2 goes back in time and we get Aaron 3 and so on. Again the twist is each of these instances exist in different possibilities in the same reality. In simple time-travel movies (lie Back to the Future), the action exists in the same reality with a single causal chain. In Primer, we have time travel plus multiple realities that exist contemporaneously (the idea of multiple worlds was first of all thought of by Leibniz and is very important in modern physics). So if we go back to the Grandfather example, I go back into the past and kill my grandfather. The I in the first reality does cease to exist (I1, so speak), but I2 (the one who has gone back into the past) continues to exist and so on (In Primer, no-one goes back to kill anyone, so we have I1 and I2 and so with multiple possible I’s all existing). Each of these versions exist in as a different version of reality (think of a different version as one in which you had or hadn’t made decision (you decided not to come to the University of Gloucestershire, for example), but actually exists (so there really exists a reality in which you whole life is lived as though you hadn’t come to the University of Gloucestershire), and then top of this, these different versions interact (so the person who are now meets the person who didn’t go to Gloucestershire University), and the you have some idea of the complexity of the syuzhet. One reality with infinite possibilities that exist interacting with one another.

So that’s the film’s ontology.  What are its rules? Time travel is in one direction only: backwards. There is not travelling into the future (though of course we all exist in the present going forward into the future). Secondly one can only travel back into time as far as the time machine itself exists. One cannot for example, get into a time machine and just emerge into any past whatsoever (like in H.G. Wells’s story) and party with dinosaurs. Rather you have to stay in the time machine for the period as long as one wants to go in the past. So if I wanted to go back in time from 8pm to 8am (to use Jason Gendler’s example). I would have to stay in the machine for 12 hours. One other rule is that time-machines are collapsable. This means that you can take a time machine back inside a time machine (just to make things even more difficult!).

OK so what is the story [if you’re reading this now, then it won’t make much sense until you see the film and even then maybe not). Two engineers (Aaron and Abe) invent a machine that stops gravity and makes objects lighter. Whilst waiting for funding, Abe realises that it is a time machine. He builds two time machines (one as a ‘failsafe’ just in case something happens) and goes back in time to tell Aaron that they have invented a time machine. They build another machine for Aaron to use. That night there is party in which Rachel, a friend of Abe and Aaron, is threatened by her ex-boyfriend. They don’t know about this event, but learn about it later. Unknown to Abe, Aaron finds the failsafe time machine, uses it, and takes another time machine with him back into the past (we know have Aaron 2). Remember these two possible Aaron’s exist in the same reality (this is the ontology of the film). Aaron 2 sets up his own failsafe and modifies Abe’s failsafe so that it can only be used if he uses his (this means Aaron 2 can go back furthest in time). Aaron 2 drugs Aaron 1 and acts the day as Aaron 1 having the same conversation with Abe who thinks that he is Aaron 1.  He also stops the guy with the shotgun at the party so becoming the hero. Just when we think that things couldn’t me more difficult, we get Aaron 3 (possibly because the actions of Aaron 2 haven’t really solved the even at the party). We now have three Aarons: Aaron 1 (the one who hasn’t gone back in time), Aaron 2 and Aaron 3. Aaron 3 goes back in time before Aaron 2 drugs Aaron 1 and attacks him (Aaron 2 that is). Aaron 3 loses the fight (exhausted by all the time travel, but convinces Aaron 2 to leave because he has done all that Aaron was going to do anyway). Later Aaron 2 tells Aaron 1 about the actions of Aaron 2 and Aaron 3 (we learn this through a voice over). Aaron 3 then replaces Aaron 1 and Aaron 2 and relives the day again having the same conversation with Abe. Aaron 3 also goes back to the party and get the ex-boyfriend arrested and thus becomes the hero. Abe and Aaron 3 (who Abe thinks is Aaron 1) go back into the past so as to manipulate the stock market to make money. Abe finds out about the party and is angry with Aaron 3 for risking everything (of course Aaron has to act as though he hadn’t travelled back into the past to manipulate events). They then encounter Thomas Granger 2, Rachel’s father, who somehow without them knowing, has found out about the time machine. Abe, afraid that everything is getting out the control, decides to use his failsafe machine (the one that Aaron has already tampered with), thinking that he can go back into the past and not tell Aaron about the machine. Abe 2 goes back and gasses Abe 1.  Abe 2 thinks he’s talking to Aaron 1, but it is in fact Aaron 3.  Aaron 3 tells Abe 2 who he really is and what has transpired. Abe 2 then reluctantly helps Aaron 3 go through the same events of the party, so that Aaron 3 becomes the hero (this is the third time this event is repeated).  Abe 2 wants to stop Abe 1 and Aaron 1 ever finding out about time travel. Aaron 3 just wants to make as much money manipulating the stock market, and an indeterminate Aaron (is it Aaron 2 or some other one), is seen at the end of the film somewhere in France with a huge time machine (we have no idea what he’s going to use it for). Then the film ends.

I love this film just for its very form. The way the narrative and the telling of narrative comes together and diverges; the cinematography, editing technique, and music; that there are no professional actors and no special effects. Elsewhere Shane Carruth says that film is a whole new language and I think he’s right (he has a new film out which sounds as strange as this one and its called Upstream Color). Yet even more importantly, it’s a film that doesn’t insult its audience. Hollywood films, for the most part, are about the status quo. They don’t make you question. At best they can be ironic, but they are still part of the mainstream. This makes you think and it does so in three ways:

  1. Philosophy of science. Shane Carruth did his degree in maths. He said that he wanted to show the audience how scientists really worked and not what we think is the image of science.
  2. Ethics. For all their technical and scientific ability, the characters in this film have little or no ethical insight. Having discovered time travel all they can think about is how to make money on the stock market.
  3. Identity. What does it mean to be me? What is self-consciousness, what is identity. Am I just my memories and choices.
  4. Time. How does time make up who I am. How do I exist in time.
  5. Ontology. What is the relation between possibility and existence. The conception of reality as infinite variation of possibilities is very close to what the French philosopher calls the virtual.

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