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Primed for Toronto

Taking Pictures


Published September 15, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

Greetings from Toronto, a Canadian city sizzling with cinema this week. Two of the most promising selections from the annual 10-day film festival, which ends September 18, are American independents:

A sort of Blair Witch Project for brainiacs, Primer uses ideas rather than action to instill a profound sense of dread. Never mind that those ideas are often expressed in baffling technospeak: Magnetic field. Semi-conductor. Parabolic. Anyone who struggled with high school science classes may feel left behind. And given the poor sound quality on the snappy low-budget picture, the terms simply zip by too fast and fuzzily for untrained ears to discern. Instead, the oomph in this clever conceit comes from the intensity of its lead characters.

Aaron (writer-director Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are 30-year-old engineers inventing complicated gizmos in a suburban garage. Although initially collaborating with two other young wizards on an "error-checking device," whatever the heck that is, in secret they begin developing a more mysterious project after work and on weekends. Abe and Aaron soon become obsessed with their inexplicable thingamabob.

The experiment takes on a life of its own, however. The have created a time machine only able to turn the clock backwards, which allows them to make a killing in the stock market. In order to transit away from the present, the duo must lie in tricked-up rectangular boxes they've stashed in a cold-storage unit.

The creepy part is that every "trip" produces a double: a second Aaron and a second Abe. Before long, the originals start subverting things done by their updated selves. Or maybe it's the other way around.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Primer is that the audience's confusion and tension are eventually no worse than that of the paranoid protagonists. Trapped between then and now, they even begin distrusting each other, dangerous for any conspiratorial pair but an exquisite turn of events for a thriller.

In contrast with the narrow focus of those Gen-X characters, the real-life folks in A Letter to True tackle bigger issues. More a quasi-autobiographical meditation than a conventional documentary, it continues Bruce Weber's scrapbook approach to filmmaking. The director explored this technique a bit less effectively in the short Gentle Giants (1995) and the feature-length Chop Suey (2001).

Weber covers numerous subjects in his breathless survey of people, places and topics that intrigue him: a combat photographer who captured disturbing images during the Vietnam War, the human rights of Haitian immigrants in Florida, and the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr...

The current venture's framework is his hand-written missive to a favorite Golden Retriever named True, one of five Weber pooches who romp on a Long Island beach and pose with signs reading "Dogs for Peace" around their necks. There's also a single Cat for Peace in the household, by the way.

Weber's interest in gay iconography and celebrities, particularly those from Hollywood's earlier eras, is reflected in his focus on a hunky young man made up to resemble Elizabeth Taylor. Liz herself appears in scenes from The Courage of Lassie, a 1946 weeper that paired her with a Collie playing a veteran of the Army's K-9 corps.

The late Dirk Bogarde shows up in film clips, interviews and home movies depicting his life with a longtime male companion. It's a tender homage that contrasts sharply with the raucous rural family and their many pets, from roosters to donkeys, seen goofing around in the mud.

Yet even these silly sequences connect with the specter of 9/11 that looms over A Letter to True. The bucolic animal lovers lost an uncle in the World Trade Center. In voiceover narration, Weber remembers a friend who perished in one of the hijacked planes and expresses his passion for New York City by celebrating its diversity of dogs.

"Spirit of Cinema: A Celebration of Classic Films From Visionary Filmmakers" is the title of an upcoming series at Burlington's Firehouse Center for the Visual Arts. Screenings take place at 7:30 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month this autumn, beginning with Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) on September 16. Hal Ashby's Being There (1979) plays on October 21. Rosemary's Baby (1968), by Roman Polanski, is slated for November 18. And Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success (1957) finishes the season on December 16. Admission is $5 at the door. For more details, call 865-7166 or visit