Unknown White Male
2006Director: Rupert Murray
Cast: Doug Bruce
oug Bruce leaves his East Village apartment one evening after telling a friend that he planned to stay in for the night. Seemingly unaware of his motivations, the 30ish stockbroker-turned-photographer boards the New York subway. Eleven hours later he emerges from the Coney Island station with no memory of what he is doing, where he is going, or even who he is. He carries with him a backpack containing ostensibly unrelated items: a set of keys, a Spanish phrase book, a map of New York, painkillers, a vile filled with a mysterious liquid, and a phone number scrawled on a piece of paper. With nowhere else to turn, Doug turns himself in to the police.
Are you beginning to notice how this sounds like a work of fiction? Unknown White Male, however, happens to be a documentary about a man struck with a sudden and intense amnesia, left to piece together who he is without the memories present to define him. The film raises some profoundly interesting questions about identity. Are we defined by something innate within us, or are we the product of the memories we retain in life? An entirely engaging movie could be based around such a subject (many have been), but Unknown White Male abandons this existential debate in favor of a tedious journey of reinvention on the part of the new Doug Bruce.
Essentially the film breaks down into three distinct parts: the first brilliant, the second tedious, and the third rather pointless. What makes the opening fifteen minutes of the documentary so affecting is the way in which it paints Bruce’s condition and his reaction to it as genuinely human. Not that he becomes any less human as the film progress, as much as the emotion he expresses becomes muted or buried beneath the film’s style. As we watch him in those opening scenes, in which he confesses his fear and confusion to the camera, barely able to hold back the tears, we wholly identify with his pain—namely because the film makes it outwardly visible to us. Had the film continued on at this level of intensity, it would’ve made for an even greater work than last year’s Grizzly Man, whose subject rendered himself completely and honestly bare before the camera.
But the force of the film doesn’t hold up under the confused direction. Murray treats the camera as a means of adding depth and impact to the reality of Bruce’s condition rather than a way of facilitating and complimenting its inherent reality. Compare it to a film like Bubble, a work of fiction that reveals more of the subtle human nature of its imagined subjects with staged situations than Unknown does of its real-life situations. Essentially, it comes down to a question of style and what the camera, by way of its operator, chooses to see.
Sure, Murray demonstrates skill at holding and positioning the camera, but does he understand how to unlock its full potential? Using a fish-eye lens to demonstrate Bruce’s subjective confusion is an unsatisfying substitute for actually probing into the psyche of its fractured subject. Murray’s film has been accused of being a hoax for precisely this reason—which isn’t to say that it constitutes the work of a fraud, but that Murray expects the audience to instinctively accept his perspective on the subject, and, thus, sees no reason for elaboration on it.
The reason the second half of the film becomes so tedious is that it basically serves as a catalogue of the condition and the effects it has on those afflicted, while in no way attempting to link it with Bruce himself. Sure, we know he suffers from it, but without any concrete display of said pain, beyond what we witness in the opening half, it makes empathizing with Bruce a trying endeavor. That the third part of the film remains pointless stems from the failure of the second. When Murray falls short on his duties as director, the task of providing us with elucidative information falls squarely on Doug Bruce, who, unfortunately, offers little insight into his condition beyond saying “it’s hard” or “confusing.” Great. Now tell us why we should care.
A better scenario (though admittedly impossible) would be to orchestrate a meeting between the current Doug Bruce and the former. At least then we’d have a point of comparison on what defines him, or, failing that, a freak-show of imagination and wonder. Though, even taken to that preposterous degree, I can’t imagine their conversation evolving beyond discussing how “confusing” it is to have met each other.
The film is a misstep, a critical error in judgment on the part of its makers on how to negotiate its subject, and a disappointment that a subject so fascinating could be handled with such mediocrity. If a man is defined by the memories that he holds then so, too, is a film a reflection of the person who’s made it, and for that matter, subject to the judgments of those who may not share those values and perspectives. Take away all my cynicism, all my fondest memories, and all my preconceptions of cinema shaped by the films I hold close to my heart and the writers whose beliefs I share, and what are you left with? I imagine the kind of person who would enjoy a film like Unknown White Male.