Sundance Forever: The Cheap, Unforgettable ‘Primer’ Captures The Sundance Essence At Its Purest

As the 2017 Sundance Film Festival rolls on, all this week we’ll be looking at the films that defined Sundance, why they still matter, and where their influence can still be felt.

By 2004, the term “Sundance movie” had picked up some distinct associations, not all of them positive. It’s not that the festival had lost its ability to showcase greatness. The previous year had seen the debuts of Capturing the Friedmans, American Splendor, All the Real Girls, and other notable films, none of them formulaic, and each part of the festival’s tradition of shining a light on the best of the indie film world. But the festival had to continue reckoning with its ongoing colonization by Hollywood and those who would treat it as a gateway to the big time. That Ben Affleck showed up, alongside Jennifer Lopez, with Project Greenlight says everything that needs saying about one layer that had settled over the Sundance experience by the early ‘00s.

That layer will likely never go away, and that’s fine. Hollywood needs fresh infusions of talent and filmmakers need, well, to eat. Put another way: It’s a big enough festival to accommodate both hire-me-now calling card films and star-packed indies like Little Miss Sunshine alongside personal movies and microbudgeted issues docs, even if the balance occasionally sometimes feels tilted too far in one direction.

And sometimes Sundance needs an out-of-nowhere film to upset that balance with a reminder of how strange and innovative independent film can be.

In 2004, Primer became that film. In some respects it was part of a tradition of movies to arrive at Sundance with a remarkable making-of story. Be it Kevin Smith selling his possessions and maxing out his credit cards to make Clerks or Darren Aronofsky scraping together the budget for Pi, Sundance has long been a place for tales of frugality and innovation. And though the film cost writer/director (and editor/co-star/composer/production designer/casting director) Shane Carruth a mere $7000, that only ties him with Robert Rodriguez’s budget for El Mariachi in cheapness (and Carruth didn’t have to subject himself to medical experiments to earn it).

What’s remarkable about Primer isn’t its low budget but how well its low budget suits it. “They took from their surroundings what was needed,” Aaron, played by Carruth, says in voiceover early in the movie, “and made of it something more.” He’s referring to the engineers at the center of the film, a scrappy group of four, later two, edging toward what they hope will be a highly profitable scientific breakthrough, one whose implications they don’t fully understand and whose impact will exceed their expectations.

Yet he might just as easily be referring to the film itself, which Carruth pasted together from available resources and filmed in large part in the homes of friends and families. Since then, it’s become an object of fascination for those who’ve seen it and an inspiration for anyone with dreams of making a movie with big ideas and limited resources. It’s a film that finds ways to turn its whole universe inside out several times over, sometimes with just as simple as a couple of lines of dialogue. “Man, are you hungry?” Aaron says at one point. “I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.”

In context — after the film has established that Aaron and his partner Abe (David Sullivan), have stumbled on a crude but effective form of time travel — the line makes sense, or at least as much sense as anything in Primer. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t a thoroughly thought-through movie with airtight logic. Smarter, more analytical minds than mine have devoted themselves to untwisting the film’s logic, attempts that frequently take the form of elaborate charts and illustrations. But every time I watch Primer I have the opposite experience I usually have when I revisit movies: I always see something new that makes me understand it less.

Carruth’s film seems designed to give viewers just enough information to keep them two steps behind the action. For the first 20 minutes, the characters talk in dryly dizzying engineering-speak about their secret project. This later gives way to Aaron and Abe’s experiments with time travel, which requires them to follow some clear rules involving boxes kept in storage lockers and a strict quarantine regimen to avoid altering the reality of the world or encountering their doppelgängers.

After a brief, heady period making easy money from the stock market, things go awry, albeit in ways that aren’t always clear. Aaron makes the mistake of answering his phone. The father of Abe’s girlfriend, Rachel, shows up in an unexpected place. Rachel complains of hearing rats in the attic. Abe’s ear begins bleeding. The partners turn on each other then reconcile, sort of. As they lose their grip on their invention, the movie itself responds by becoming chaotic while maintaining an underlying sense that it hasn’t become incomprehensible, it’s simply following its time-travel logic to the edges of what the mind can comprehend. In short, it’s a trip, a film that’s at once thrilling, unsettling, and, thanks to a persistent sense that human frailty tends to undercut human achievement, sad. Aaron and Abe create something amazing that they’re ill-equipped to control. Their genius threatens to be their undoing.

If Primer cautions against creative hubris within the film, the film itself does just the opposite. It remains an aspirational object for anyone hoping to create something singular with limited-to-nonexistent resources. It also established a zone in which Carruth’s seemed happy to stay. He spent the years after Primer working on a project called A Topiary, which, as he told Grantland in 2013, was to be his version of a big budget Hollywood movie. But Carruth could never bring Hollywood around to his way of thinking, so instead he made the beautiful, equally mysterious Upstream Color, taking much the same approach as he did with Primer. Carruth served as the film’s co-star, writer, director, cinematographer, composer, and co-editor. He even distributed it himself. Whatever anyone else thinks of his movies, they’re his movies.

In that sense, Carruth has twice given Sundance, relatively late in its existence, a reminder of its roots as a home for filmmakers seeking new ways to use film as a form of personal expression outside the system. Carruth has created two visually striking, moody, perplexing, and cheap films that nobody else could create and he made both on his own terms taking what was needing from his surroundings and making of it something more. He’s a director of, in other words, Sundance movies. And even if that term has taken on other meanings over the years, the festival can still offer an out-of-nowhere surprise like nothing no one has seen before — so long as filmmakers continue to rise to the challenge.

Sundance Forever concludes with this entry. Be sure to check out our previous entries on sex, lies, and videotape, Reservoir Dogs, Welcome to the Dollhouse and The Blair Witch Project.