Part of the beauty of Shane Carruth’s Primer lies in its alienating density. Carruth doesn’t care if you don’t get it; nothing about Primer is inviting or accessible. You will not understand Primer the first time through, repeated viewings are necessary. Even with a timeline walk through, Primer is conceptually intimidating.
Unlike most films, the thematics of Primer are hiding in plain sight. The challenge of Primer is following the details of the plot.
When I sat down to watch Primer again with the idea in mind of writing about it, I decided to ignore the time-travel elements. Chuck Klosterman had already written an excellent essay on Primer’s time-travel and I’m unsure if there’s anything left to be said on the topic.
So, this time around, I pushed through the fantastically constructed physics and focused the characters.
I was shocked to find an entirely new movie emerge.
If you haven’t seen Primer, it’s the story of two engineers who unwittingly invent a working time machine. Overnight they go from middle class anonymity to being the most powerful and historically-significant humans of all time. Immediately our protagonists put aside the relatively modest achievement of public recognition through publication and concentrate on something more basic: using their invention to produce infinite wealth.
Theoretically, Primer could end there. What is there to want beyond infinite wealth?
It was only upon this recent viewing that something which felt urgent became apparent: Abe and Aaron never physically see any of the phantom money they acquire as bits of data attached to their names, nor do they enjoy the benefits.
You’d think it would only take a day or two of day trading to accumulate enough money to be sitting on a yacht in the south pacific with six dozen sorority girls, yet instead Abe and Aaron dwell in the life they’re accustomed to- sitting on a dingy couch in suburban Texas and drinking cheap beer. Almost as if there was something too easy about using the Biff Tannen blueprint from Back to the Future 2.
If wealth can be understood as a barometer for power, their time machine trumps wealth as a means of holding power.
The time machine sets Aaron and Abe apart from every other person who has ever existed; the time machine represents an evolution, their very own shrieking monolith. Even if wealth is the first place the mind goes upon the suggestion of time travel, there is something that feels plebeian about such a modest goal.
Overnight Abe and Aaron manage to enter the realm the omnipotent… or so they think.
When Abe wonders what to do with life as a bored billionaire, Aaron suggests assaulting a former business partner who got one over on them…. thus bringing them back to Earth. Abe and Aaron aren’t Gods after all, they only happened to stumble upon acquiring the power of one.
But what did we learn about desire? Identity trumps all else.
Wealth is pedestrian when you have a time machine which allows for infinite possibility.
Aaron doesn’t get around to throwing fists with his ex-business partner, but instead sets his sights on a different goal entirely. Over the course of the few days which the events of Primer take place, Aaron attends a birthday party where a man rushes in with a shotgun and threatens a girl.
Aaron sees the party as an opportunity to look heroic- to bravely disarm a gunman and save a woman’s life. This becomes Aaron’s sole ambition for using the time-machine; a moment of Alpha male adulation for enacting our highest social priority- saving a woman, and more impressively, risking his life to do so.
Aaron’s highest priority isn’t wealth or comfort, or even sex, it’s the rush of possessing an authentic masculine identity and the social respect which comes as part of the package.
This places the value of having a genuine masculine identity above possessing wealth. Would you rather be the bartender with an easy sense of confidence or the insecure, weakling millionaire?
Although Aaron first suggests asserting his masculinity through street-justice, getting revenge on his former business partner, the prospect of white knighting for a woman takes its place.
Beta-male Aaron believes that embodying the White Knight is the end-game of authentic masculinity and the foundation for male-identity.
Masculinity has become a demonized lost-art and a dirty word, yet its necessity remains. Men understand the value in cultivating a positive male-identity, but the methodology of building that identity has become esoteric. Men will search endlessly for guidance, for advice that works, and for a foundation to understand why some men happily succeed while others fail by merely doing what they thought was right.
It comes as no surprise that my blog dissecting the foundation of masculinity is my most read; men are desperate for guidance.
Aaron begins the Primer timeline as a highly-intelligent engineer with a family, ends up acquiring the power of a God, and is still most drawn to the good-feelings associated with having a masculine-identity. When everything becomes available to Aaron, he gravitates toward developing this identity in favor of infinite wealth or women.
However, Aaron’s self-image as man has become so diminished that his deepest desire- this revealed inadequacy- is the public recognition of masculinity, and chasing this wish tears Aaron’s life apart.
Now don’t let anyone tell you that Primer is about time-travel.
Haven’t seen Primer? It’s fucking beautiful. Buy the HD digital copy at the official website.
Totally confused by Primer? I am too, every single time I watch it… it’s part of the fun; check out this absolutely fantastic fanmade audio commentary track.