Unknown White Male
2005, PG-13, 88 min. Directed by Rupert Murray.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 24, 2006
The ambitions of this intriguing documentary about one man’s amnesia far outweigh its accomplishments. When it’s at its best, Unknown White Male can be stirring and thought-provoking, but too often it’s lax and complacent when what’s called for is something more probing and investigative. Filmmaker Murray begins filming his old friend Doug Bruce a few months after the latter has been diagnosed with retrograde amnesia after walking into a Coney Island police station on July 3, 2003 with no memory of who he was or anything about his life up until that point. It’s the kind of condition that occurs much more commonly in soap operas than in real life, and although none of the doctors interviewed for the film will discount Bruce’s total memory lapse, they all agree that its occurrence is extremely rare and unusual. We watch as friends and three girlfriends (two old, one new) help reacquaint Bruce with the trappings of his life. It turns out that he acquired enough wealth on the British stock exchange to retire while in his early 30s, move to New York, and enroll in photography school. He goes abroad to visit his father and sisters, and later travels to London to visit old friends. No memories stir, and Bruce, indeed, seems relieved to like all these people because if he did not he suggests he’d have no trouble letting them slip away from the new Bruce. Inevitably, viewers will find themselves wondering what it would be like to have such a fresh start in life – frightening yet liberating at the same time. And of course, money can’t buy happiness, but independent wealth can assuage any problems that arise – an aspect of Bruce’s story the film doesn’t investigate. Murray takes the situation at face value, never voicing any suspicions about the possibility that Bruce’s amnesia is an elaborate hoax - something that many journalists have charged since the release of his film. Had he been more questioning of his friend, Murray might not be in this predicament. Many are the times the viewer stares disbelievingly at the screen, furious with Murray for not asking follow-up questions or simply refusing to see the need to prove the veracity of the story. Granted, in these months following the exposure of the frauds perpetrated by authors James Frey and J.T. Leroy, the public may be more skittish about these things, but Murray’s duty as a documentarian demands a more rigorous approach. Employing lots of distorted, fast-moving, fish-eye shots, it’s clear that Murray’s aim was the personalization of the issue by using an abundance of point-of-view footage and re-enactments. Unfortunately, the blurry perspective on the screen ends up being a reflection of the film as well as its subject.