Unknown White Male

| April 2, 2006

A young man awakes, alone and disheveled, on a New York City subway train. He has no idea how he got there or where he is going. As the minutes pass, it slowly dawns on him that he also isn’t exactly sure where he is coming from, or what city he’s in, or even what his own name is. Fear and panic sets in as he realizes that his memory has somehow been completely wiped clean; he’s a blank slate, a stranger with no identity and no past, lost in a big, uncaring metropolis.
If that sounds like the set-up for a twisty psychological thriller (perhaps a sequel/prequel/spin-off to The Bourne Identity or Memento), take note that it’s actually the supposed real life story of 37-year-old Doug Bruce, who woke up one summer day in 2003 with a case of total retrograde amnesia. Doug’s frightening dilemma is the subject of Unknown White Male, an intriguing if slightly remote feature-length documentary. Since its premiere at Sundance last January, rumors have been circulating that the film is actually a fraud, a fictional narrative piece posing as a stranger-than-fiction documentary. I’d be much more inclined to believe such claims were the movie in question more sensational. Yet Unknown White Male unfolds with the clinical detachment of a medical case study. It approaches the material with a mixture of awe and fascination, yet, for all the footage at its disposal, never truly succeeds in capturing the fear, anxiety, and loneliness of Doug’s experience. The result is a drama (fiction or nonfiction–you decide for yourself!) that’s as intellectually engaging as it is emotionally distant.
Beginning with a loopy, gimmicky recreation of those terrifying first few hours (complete with shaky false-POV shots and flashes of overexposed B-roll), Unknown White Male tosses us directly into Doug’s waking nightmare. Baffled and scared out of his wits, he contacts the police, who take him to a NYC mental hospital. Through his signature (which he is able to instinctively scrawl out) and the discovery of the phone number of an ex-girlfriend, the doctors piece together Doug’s identity. The remainder of the film concerns his attempts to reintegrate himself into society and his own life. None of the skills he learned over the years are gone, just his personal memories and experiences, including those of anyone he has ever met. There appears, however, to be no physical explanation for his condition, and none of the doctors are able to say if or when his memory will return.
Unknown White Male is the feature debut of Rupert Murray, an old friend of Doug’s who began working on the movie when he received news of his bizarre condition. A combination of interviews/footage shot by Murray and Doug’s own video diary, the film takes us through the months following the “incident,” as Doug is reacquainted with his friends and members of his immediate family. We also share some of his new experiences, as the camera captures his “discovery” of fireworks, snow, and chocolate mousse. Murray narrates throughout, offering a dry but insightful commentary track on the action.
Much of all this is undeniably fascinating, and Murray raises a number of provocative questions. How much of who we are is shaped by our memories and experiences? Is our personality merely the product of the environment in which we were raised, or is it rooted in something deeper? And what would it be like to see the world through the eyes of a newborn baby but with the cognitive faculties of a grown man?
Unknown White Male could stir up some heavy philosophical debate, yet much of its interest lies entirely in its captivating premise, not its execution. For all the awkward encounters and confessional moments captured on tape, the film keeps us at a safe distance from its subject, encouraging us to analyze but not to become emotionally invested. Family members, friends, and even Doug himself remain curiously aloof throughout the film, perhaps because cameras are constantly in their faces. We never feel plugged into Doug’s predicament or privy to what he is experiencing, and thus we never really get to know him, either as the person he was or the person he has become. Of course, this is understandable and perhaps appropriate, given that Doug doesn’t even know who he is. But without any real insight into what he is actually going through, the film sputters out a bit towards the end, and we are left intellectually stimulated but strangely unmoved.
Real or fake, documentary or elaborate hoax, Unknown White Male would have benefited from a more personal touch. Still, it does leave one quite curious as to what Doug is up to these days. I can’t wait for the sequel.

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