🎬 #23 Puzzle Pieces.
Most films are rewarding when you see them again. Maybe you catch them on TV and you feel like you've discovered something new that you hadn’t noticed the first time, or you’re seeing it at a different time in your life and you have a different perspective on it. Then again there are other films that demand a second viewing, a third viewing and more because they are too complex to see everything or even understand on the first watch, even if you do enjoy the experience.
This week’s two films are firmly in that second batch. Even after 10 or more viewings - they can still be perplexing but compelling and fascinating at the same time.
Happy choosing, happy viewing
FILM ONE: PRIMER
2004 Dir Shane Carruth
When this film came out it immediately took the top prize at Sundance. It was a festival mega hit by any stretch of the imagination and it found a big fan in Steven Soderbergh who would remain a champion of Carruth’s projects. But the film also left people scratching their heads but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even if you can’t grasp what’s going on in intricate detail, it’s still a great film to experience, not so much as watch. It demands that you pay close attention as you get thrown into the middle of its complexities. That’s what I really admire about it, it forgoes any typical exposition or simplification. It assumes the audience is as smart or smarter than the central characters.
A brief synopsis of the film might say: the most complex yet realistic film about time travel and its implications ever made. And part of the realism is that the implications are at the very human level, not the massive history alternating scale.
At the centre of the film are engineers who tinker with side projects in their garage in the evening and on weekends. So they speak to each other the way engineers would. With technicalites casually tossed out and intricate theories dispelled and contested, like normal people would talk about their favourite tv shows. There is a realism to this film that is difficult to achieve in science fiction.
Made by Carruth, almost single handedly for $5000, the director serves not only as one of the leads, but also writer, producer, editor, and composer. Shooting on 16mm, the budget was so tight they ended up with a shooting ratio [the number of usable takes to overall takes] of 2:1. Which means they rolled twice on average and used one take. A shooting ratio like this is unheard of on a typical film shoot. But a necessity when it comes to using 16mm film cost efficiently. Intensive rehearsals were needed to ensure not a frame of film was wasted. Nolan used a similar approach on his first film, Following.
The fact that it was shot with minimal crew on 16mm lends it a feeling of an 80’s science film, shot on film. I mean science film in the sense that a documentary film crew was brought into an engineering department and shown around. It has that IBM texture - I think even Carruth said he was going for or inspired by the look and feeling of an IBM commercial he had seen. The uncorrected green tinge of garage fluorescents, and the slightly bleached/over exposed whites makes it feel beautiful in an engineering sense - raw and stripped down to its essential parts.
In this way, the construction of the film is much like the machine they end up making to make their passage in time possible. The parts left exposed but beautiful and real. I encourage you to stay with the film and give it a second viewing, then maybe read more about the plot before going back in again. It keeps giving more the more time you give to it.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hr 17 mins of my precious life watching this? Delve into this atmospheric time travel puzzler that feels like it could be happening right now and experience the sensation of your brain pleasantly pushing up against the inside of your skull.
*Available for a small rental fee on Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube, Amazon and Sky Store. Free if you have the Arrow subscription on Amazon Prime Video.
Fact: It took Carruth 2 years to wrangle the film together in post production, and he admits to almost abandoning it on several occasions.
FILM TWO: COHERENCE
2013 Dir James Ward Byrkit
Shot digitally in one central location, this film is almost a chamber piece - a complex who done it, is doing it, will do it. It centres around a group of friends coming together for a dinner party, the same night that a comet is due to pass extremely close to the Earth. The effects of the passing comet are to render the rules of reality null and void. The characters battle escalating, threatening and straight up violent confusion to keep things together. Another aspect of the comet’s effect is to exaggerate the tensions already present in the group.
This, you might say is a more social film than Primer, it’s more human in its concerns - even though the high concept and the subsequent action can feel just as dense. It’s more about the dynamics of the group and the impacts of the phenomenon on their relationships.
Largely improvised from a tight outline, this adds a sense of reality that’s critical to the revelations that come after the comet begins it passage. When things really start to get ‘crazy’ the handheld, reactive camera and homely setting ground the experience into something that might be eerily plausible. Indeed the film is based on reported historical ‘happenings’ that range from mass confusion to delusion that align with close flybys of celestial bodies. Like Primer it’s an original take on a hard science concept.
The techniques the filmmaker’s deploy render the incoherent events satisfying in their striking simplicity and yet wholly original. In a way it’s an almost theatrical film. You can imagine seeing an adaptation of it on stage.
I’ve seen the film three times now and I’m still grappling with it, but like I said, with every watch it reveals more of itself to you. The picture grows fuller as time goes on and the comet flies by.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hr 29 mins of my precious life watching this? Get lost in a dinner party you’ve never quite seen before as the guests try to make sense of the impossible things they’re bearing witness to.
Available for free on Amazon and for a small rental fee on Apple TV.
Fact: Shot almost entirely on location in the Director’s house. And even though the budget was 10 times higher than Primer it’s still considered a very low budget film.