Though Unknown White Male gets caught halfway between a mystery and a meditation on memory, it raises just enough questions to make for a provocative documentary.

James Plath's picture

"Unknown White Male" raises an interesting question that goes back to nature vs. nurture debates: How much of our personality is shaped and determined by the experiences we've had and the memories we hold, and how much is pure "us"?

Doug Bruce was a successful stockbroker who had done so well for himself that he quit at age 30 and decided to learn photography. He lived in a spacious and trendy East Side apartment in New York City with two Scottish terriers and three cockatoos. Then one day he found himself on a subway train heading who knows where. And it occurred to him that he didn't know where he was coming from, or who he was. Wearing shorts in chilly weather and lugging a backpack, he had no knowledge of his identity and no memory of his past. All he had was bumps on the head and some residual pain, and, of course, the contents of that backpack. Frightened, and with no place to go or no one to turn to, he turned himself in to police. Was he a victim of external or psychological trauma?

Thus begins a documentary that feels, in the early going, like a mystery that's to be unraveled. In fact, that's how it plays out for the first few sequences. But then this documentary by Rupert Muray shifts gears. Instead of pushing toward the identity reveal and maintaining a kind of detective story forward movement, Murray brings in talking heads and starts asking questions of everyone involved, trying to explore how everyone felt about the situation. Something is gained in the process, but certainly something is also lost.

Curiously, the minute that Murray heard his friend had been identified and had experienced the loss of 35 years of memories, he swooped in and decided to film this documentary. It wasn't at all buzzard-like, though, because much of the footage shows photography nut Bruce with video camera in hand, filming his every move. His impulse, even as someone who doesn't know who he is, was to get it on film . . . something we see in the later responses of family and friends that's a familiar sight.

It's clear that Murray's impulse was similar: get it on tape, with no thoughts yet of how to use it. The earliest footage—shot just six days after Bruce lost his memory sometime between 8pm on July 1 and 7am on July 3, 2003—is so rough that it was obviously shot with a simple camcorder. Later footage and all of the interviews with relatives, friends, cops, witnesses, and medical experts are all done using more sophisticated film stock. So apparently, just as Bruce's reconstruction of himself unfolded slowly, so did the shape and scope of this documentary.

I have to admit that I found it most compelling when we were in the midst of a real howdunit. It had all the trappings of a mystery. The only clues to the man's identity were in his backpack: two sets of keys, a strange vial of fluid medicine, mild pain killers, a Latin American Spanish phrase book, and a map of New York.

The first revelation comes not from those contents, but from police. "You speak with an English accent," they observed. "You must be English." And there's a phone number on a slip of paper in his pocket, and they call. More reveals come when he's checked into Coney Island Hospital, and a breakthrough comes when he's transferred to the psych ward.

An expert fills the screen from time to time, telling us about memory loss and how rare Doug's case is. There are three major long-term memory types: episodic (our recollection of unique experiences), semantic (our general knowledge of the world, as acquired from books and newspapers, etc.), and procedural (our knowledge of skills we've acquired, the "how-to" aspects of our background). What's interesting about Doug's case is that he's lost all three aspects. Hearing the name of his favorite football club in London, he's positively clueless as to whether it's animal, mineral, or vegetable. Standing in the surf, he's absolutely clueless as to whether he knows how to swim, or would drown if the undertow grabbed him. Reunited with his father, he shakes his hand and says, "Pleased to meet you."

Maybe this started out as a mystery, but Murray clearly became more fascinated by the ramifications of his friend's loss. How did it affect Doug and everyone around him? And it is interesting and, at times, mesmerizing. But it's not a perfect film. Sometimes the film covers similar ground and seems to drag because of it. Other times, Murray's attempts to dramatize his friend's situation and emotional state seem overdone. There's probably more in the way of weird angles, distorted fish-eye lenses, shaky hand-held cameras, jumpy quick cuts, and pulsing repetetitve music than there needs to be to create an appropriate atmosphere. Murray is a pretty heavy-handed filmmaker. One segment goes way overboard, with wind chimes and whispering that's really too heavy-meddle New Age.

Occasionally, the voiceover narration lands a pretty good punch, as when the voice says, "His past now belonged to everyone except him." For the most part, though, it's all pretty even-keeled. In fact, there's a strange, polished nonchalance about this film in which we watch Doug reconnect with person after person with much the same results. Everyone knows the camera is on them, and there's a kind of hesitancy that you feel because of it. In the end, what began as a mystery ends up being an elegy for the old self. But it's still a fascinating film.

Video: The video varies considerably. Presented in 16x9 widescreen, some of the footage is sharp and clear, while other segments are rougher or deliberately grainy or blurred for stylistic effect. Overall, though, it has good but not full color saturation and a decent black level that provides a comfortable visual contrast.

Audio: The sound, by contrast, is consistently high-powered. The English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack splits the background music into the left and right speaker channels, which doesn't exactly lend itself to a natural sound experience, but it's stylistically effective.

Extras: A making-of feature is made in the same style as the film, with the eerie New Age background music, quiet voiceover narration, and images taken both from the film and outtakes. Murray says he wanted to make a meditation on memory, and that comes across in parts of the film.

In an interesting feature, Murray and producer Beadie Finzi appear onstage in front of a college audience to address charges that the film was a fake, and that Doug never lost his memory and that it never stayed lost during the two years it took to make the film.

Another one shows the director interviewing his subject at a beach (a curious place, given the difficult sound conditions), and, in fact, the sound does prove to be problematic. On this feature as on one which shows Doug's friends talking about the old Doug, the sound is a little weird. At times, the voice comes out of all three front speakers, while at other times just the center, and still other times the center and the right front. The features themselves are pretty typical, as are the extended interviews with experts on brain traumas, psychological traumas, and memory loss.

Overall, though, it's a decent (and unexpected) package of extras.

Bottom Line: Though "Unknown White Male" gets caught halfway between a mystery and a meditation on memory, it raises just enough questions to make for a provocative documentary.


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