Minor Premise

(Eric Schultz, USA, 2020)


Moi non plus


A man is wildly montage-tripping through the stations of his life: disintegration of the harsh-genius father (death bed), erotic intimacy with the ex-girlfriend (sex bed), shouting rage, cigarette smoke, the spookily vacant rooms of his current home … Along for the ride – it would seem – is a white mouse (no animals were harmed, etc.). So you can immediately figure that this is a homage to Alain Resnais’ masterpiece (one of many in his filmography), Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968). Which also inevitably means that, in the way these cards fall, it is also a grab at the legacy of Je t’aime’s unofficial remake, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). That movie by Michel Gondry, however good in itself, is to blame for an awful lot of the fiddly stuff that followed it …


Minor Premise lacks the strenuous heart-quotient of Eternal Sunshine. What it has – what it devotes all its energy and attention to – is a plot premise, whether major or minor, that is incredibly fussy and confusing.


At the outset, it appears to be about that particular variation of time-travel narrative known as memory-hopping: inhabiting (with no control lever) diverse moments, sensations, experiences of a troubled lifetime. (There’s always been something odd about this idea: the hopping person not only hops, but also knows that they hop while in the process of it, thus becoming a second-order/supplemental spectator of their own screen-biography.) The memory-hop here is where we get keyed into the Oedipal underwriting of Daddy and Son – both scientists.


Then it settles down, briefly, for a pedagogical explanation: that son, Ethan (a never-not-haggard-looking Sathya Sridharan), is giving a class to students to whom he feels very superior – they even dare ask our Dark Genius about the ethics of neurobiological experimentation, what weak-willed dopes they! That lesson is given via Zoom, since Ethan is the man for a low-budget movie: he hardly ever leaves his (cavernous) house. The Great Shut-In, yet again: American Cinema is full of it these days. In that, the film’s production was uncannily well-timed for the COVID years (it premiered in August 2020).


We have already gained the impression that Ethan’s ethics are, at least, an Ethics of the Self: thoughtfully enough, he experiments on his own brain, finger hovering above the ‘enter’ button on his laptop as he nestles into a Brainstorm/Videodrome-type head contraption, and counts down the seconds on his stadium-size digital wall-clock. Then the blood cells rush (these shots must be repeated two dozen times across the story) and the montage trips. Where are we? Where – and who – is Ethan?


Daddy and Junior have worked on successive phases of this head-gadget, as we learn in the Knight of Cups-type flashes and various muttered bits of exposition from Ethan’s universitarian supervisor, Malcolm (Dana Ashbrook from Twin Peaks). Mark 9 of the machine was all about going in to record memories – since, Ethan tells his class, memories are imprinted images on the brain. Imprinted like a film-strip, no less! And Ethan was (I think) desperately hoping to erase some of those Daddy images from his own brain. We are therefore in the grip of an old movie fantasy, around since the 1980s: if memories are like an unreeling strip of film, just cut out the frames you don’t want!


But take a look at the recorded result of the natural image-imprinting process: it’s all fuzzy superimpositions streaming at different speeds, like a thousand groovy pieces of algorithmic digital art. What do we need to cohere those images, to give them 24-frames-per-second consistency? The answer: emotion. And apparently just one emotion at a time, love or anger or whatever, if that makes any sense. (Nothing much in this movie makes any sense, but that won’t stop us going on with it … )


So then, ensconced in its present tense, the plot focus sharply changes. Ethan somehow maps his emotional brain, and figures it has ten parts, ten components. He wants to boost the intellectual bit of it so that he can crack some incredibly elusive equation (a deceptive version of which sits in Daddy’s notebook, bequeathed to Ethan at that death-bed). There are just ten major emotions? Take that on trust. As if in homage to Raúl Ruiz’s wonderfully Rousselian Love Torn in Dream (2000), there’s even the recurring shot of a blackboard that breaks this emotional division down for us. Here it is.

Why is this list – which mixes nouns and adjectives so freely! – required, and why does it carry a time code? Because, wouldn’t you know, Ethan’s self-experiment goes haywire! And he is possessed by a different ‘enhanced’ emotion for exactly six minutes at a time. Then, at the transition-points, the blood cells rush around in his head. But that’s not yet all. There are mysterious zones in this experience of every hour – default is a strange category that I never quite grasped, primitive and anger seem rather alike in their manifestations, libido is granted a single ten-frame flash of merry masturbation in the bathroom, euphoria has nothing to do with libido (someone has not been watching the HBO TV series Euphoria), and unconscious means, in a very literal way, just that excellent alibi for self-denial, i.e., blackout – and what’s more fateful (and fatal), certain of these emotions manage to struggle for supremacy over the others! Psychotic strains to map itself across (I think those are the scientific words used) all its neighbours – and thus grab more minutes in the hour! Those pesky emotions, never sitting tight in their allotted corner of the neuro-mapped brain. How dare they?


So it’s not The Ten Faces of Ethan after all, not a portrait of schizophrenic dissociation (no matter what the poster design suggests). It pretty much boils down to two personae at war, Good vs. Evil (psychotic) Ethan. There’s a way to tell when E. is psychotic: he smokes cigarettes! But, big trap: the psycho is also a dissimulator: just like Satan, he can pretend to be Good. And just as those fuzzy memories can sort-of lie, or shape-shift, forever tipping this way or that to reveal their hidden secrets. Just don’t ask about the Freudian (etc.) unconscious, OK? It’s one of those movies (one among very many) with a lot of furious brain-activity, time-tripping, and speculative moments (did it happen or not? Did he see that or not?), but nothing going on in that ocean of drives, displacements, negations and erasures known as the unconscious. Which is itself a symptom of our neuro-obsessed times, as Renata Salecl and others have wisely observed.


All of this confusion and dissimulation turns out to be quite a problem for the story’s ex-love interest, Alli (Paton Ashbrook: daughter of Star Trek‘s Daphne Ashbrook & Lorenzo Lamas, Dana’s niece). She get’s roped into Ethan’s domestic shut-in of laptop-twiddling and notepad/blackboard-jotting, but it’s a thankless role for the actor, because we keep suspecting that Alli hangs around not “for the memories” (and what a ragged lover this dude must have been!), but only for the fame, riches and prestige that the brain-gadget will one day bestow on its creator(s). Hence, an institutional fight for glory (universities are nasty places) underlies all the neuro-psy convolutions.


Alli does get to deliver another central, pedagogical, expositional speech. Mark 9 was about memories and Mark 10 (i.e., most of the film) investigated consciousness via the pathway of emotion … but Mark 11 will herald and conquer a new threshold which is, yes indeed, that elusive but unmistakeable signature known as the unique and individual Self. And so, in the mode of recursive loop (and final-frame ambiguous switcheroo) so common in these time-memory-blackout dramas of 21C, we end, once more, with the killer question: which Self, exactly, is Ethan now?


What a frantic mess Minor Premise is! (By the way, if you’re burning to understand that title, which is what actually drew me to watch the darn thing in the first place: Ethan’s major premise is that the emotional sections of the brain can be isolated, and the minor premise is the link between memory and emotions. But isn’t it the major premise which is, in fact, the central problem of the story? Maybe Major Premise sounded too much like a fun military comedy.) I generally like movies that keep redefining their basic idea as they churn and develop, but this one never seems to push forward at all, and its various tangents never really connect.


Bits of the story get forgotten – like the chucked-around corner of a room that just lies there and never gets cleaned up; or Malcolm, drugged and dropped in the back room for half the plot, until Ethan and Alli stick him in the Big Chair to erase his recent memory-impressions, notwithstanding the coolant problem (at least I learnt a new word) with the bursting water-pipes in the dingy lab …


This ongoing narrative amnesia (one has rarely seen a film lose track of its own threads so completely) is quasi-justified, I assume, by Ethan’s splintered narrating subjectivity: whenever he “shifts”, he can’t remember what his predecessor-selves have just been doing, ever. (Which is the exact opposite of the time-hopping self-spectator Ethan of the opening sequence.) But stories where the hero keeps having to “catch up” on the script that he himself drives – blame Memento (2001) for that piece of the brain-scramble legacy – can easily collapse into laborious, repetitive constructions. As does, alas, Minor Premise, Eric Schultz’s debut feature as director (after prolific years as a producer) – based on his previous short of 2020, which was more sensibly titled … Premise.

© Adrian Martin 24 August 2022

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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