Minor Premise (2020) at Fantasia
The protagonist in Eric Schultz’s feature debut Minor Premise, Ethan (Sathya Sridharan), is – much like all of us – an individual full of contradictions. The scion and natural successor of world-renowned neuroscientist Paul Kochar (Nikolas Konotomanolis), Ethan is also a jealous, resentful son with serious Oedipal issues who would like nothing more than to forget that his father, who has recently passed away, ever even existed. He has world-scale ambitions, but much as his work looks inward to the mind, he too is a recluse, giving all his lectures remotely and only rarely, not to mention reluctantly, going out. He embodies self-confident hubris, yet can be sloppy in his work. He is disciplined, yet prone to addictions. He still loves his ex-girlfriend Alli (Paton Ashbrook), but is also the one who pushed her away. He is a genius, but also, as Alli points out, an “angry child”. These different layers to his character make Ethan who he is, while putting him endlessly at odds with himself.
All this will become crystallised as Ethan experiments on himself at home with the prototype of high-tech mind-manipulating equipment. For, expanding upon his father’s work in memory mapping, Ethan has been developing a device called the R10, which “can isolate the sections of the brain which impact emotions and behaviours.” In shades of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Ethan first uses the R10 in an attempt to isolate and erase his memories of his father – but the experiment fails, leaving Ethan with only blackouts and headaches. After mysteriously receiving by post the algorithm that may make the R10 work correctly, an inebriated Ethan again plugs himself into the now upgraded contraption, hoping to isolate and enhance his intellect. He wakes to discover that he is rapidly cycling through nine different, isolated aspects of himself, plus the ‘default’ integral version, each getting six minutes to itself in any given hour (and none aware of what the others are doing).
As Ethan’s overworked brain starts heading towards permanent damage, even, death, Ethan must race to reintegrate himself, remapping his full, balanced default version over the nine others. To help accomplish this, he recruits Alli, who works separately with both his default self and with Section 5 (Intellect) to get the R10 device properly functioning – but even as Ethan learns to retain control over some of his Sections, giving him more conscious working time per hour, he wonders how much he can trust Alli and Section 5 – who seem to be conspiring to keep secrets from him. Meanwhile Section 2 (Anger) sabotages the equipment in outbursts of aggression, and Section 8, whose defining trait has not yet been identified, has plans all of his own. There is also the small problem of Ethan’s senior colleague Malcolm (played by Paton Ashbrook’s uncle Dana, familiar as Bobby Briggs from Twin Peaks), unconscious upstairs after he was drugged and dragged there by one of Ethan’s Sections.
Though avowedly minor, the premise of Schultz’s film (which he co-wrote with Justin Morretto and Thomas Torrey) is certainly convoluted and conceptually challenging. For the conflict that in most films would take place in the outside world is here internalised, unfolding not only within the confines of Ethan’s house, but also within his fragmented mind. Ethan is all at once hero and villain in a battle for supremacy where all the flaws that make up his composite identity are also, paradoxically, working to kill him.
The choice to present events mostly from the default Ethan’s extremely limited point of view means that we are as disoriented as he is, sharing his narrative experience as a series of disjointed six-minute episodes. These are supplemented only with his impressionistic memories, video messages left by Section 5, and CCTV footage of what the different Sections have been getting up to on their own. It is like the dissociative identity disorder plotting of television’s Herman’s Head (1991-1994), James Mangold’s Identity (2003), Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai’s Mad Detective (2007) and Pete Docter’s Inside Out (2015), except that the multiple aspects of Ethan appear on screen sequentially rather than simultaneously (except in the default, where all are present) – and as Ethan himself points out when Alli suggests that this is DID, “these aren’t personalities – it’s all still me”.
Ethan’s attempt to reintegrate is also a dramatisation of his turbulent psychology – the divided aspects of himself that are always competing with each other to determine how he feels and what he does, and that now each have the opportunity to act independently. The default Ethan’s understanding of what is going on is riddled with ellipses, corresponding to his blackouts as each of his brain sections takes over in turn. From these narrative lacunae, paranoia is born, making this also a portrait of a man who, for all his outward arrogant swagger, fundamentally does not trust himself – and perhaps is right not to.
The mad scientist is a familiar type in genre cinema, but few films get inside the low impulses and higher drives of this figure quite like Minor Premise. For here, we see all Ethan’s inner workings, compartmentalised and unchecked. Ethan has always been half-suppressing, half-indulging these different facets of his personality – after all, each is an essential part of him – but if the worst were to come out on top, would anyone even notice the difference? It might seem that the film’s stakes are low, until we recall that this unbalanced individual has his hands on a dangerously powerful, ethically questionable, world-changing invention. If Schwartz’s film messes with people’s minds metaphorically, the R10 does so literally – and there is a next-generation version of this device on its way. This is where the otherwise locked-in Minor Premise becomes political: because in today’s world of corporate control and narcissistic, lying leaders, we all know, and some of us fear, what it is like to be manipulated, deceived and gaslit by a psychopath.
Strap: Eric Schultz’s feature debut is a literal mind-melt, pitting an unbalanced neuroscientist against different isolated sections of his brain.
© Anton Bitel