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March 19, 2006

Unknown White Male

On July 2, 2003, at around 8 PM, Doug Bruce left his Manhattan apartment. Severeal hours later, Bruce found himself exiting the New York subway at the Coney Island station wearing shorts, a t-shirt a flip flops. He had no idea who he was and had no memory of his past. He wasn't carrying ID but happened to have a backpack with a book inside, where he found a woman's phone number stuffed inside. Turning himself in to the police, Doug spent several days in a Brooklyn mental hospital while he waited to contact the woman. While the set-up of Unknown White Male (IMDB) sounds like something straight out of film noir, Doug Bruce's story is actually true, and Unknown White Male documents Bruce's experiences as he comes to terms with his amnesia and tries to make a new life for himself.

The phone number in Doug's backpack belongs to a friend, and she is the first person to reintroduce Doug to his old life--he was a stockbroker who "retired" at age 30--and his luxurious Manhattan apartment, and from there, Doug begins meeting old friends and family, including Rupert Murray, a drinking buddy from Doug's days in London who decides that Doug's story would make an interesting documentary. Several critics have speculated that Doug's amnesia may be faked or that the documentary itself is an elaborate hoax (if it is a hoax, Doug is a fantastic actor), in part because very little medical evidence is offered on-screen to explain Doug's condition (director Rupert Murray seeks to defuse the "controversy" in this City Paper interview). But no matter what, Doug's story offers a profound meditation on what counts as human, what constitutes as identity, and even on the capactity of personal reinvention embedded in the American dream (Hoberman's good on many of these issues), and to Murray's credit, he features interviews with psychiatrists and philosophers who recognize the complications Doug's experiences raise.

Many of the film's early scenes feature Doug in a mental hospital The scenes featuring Doug's encounters with his family and friends are as unsettling as they are fascinating. While Doug's father and sister have decades of memories of him, he is, in some sense, meeting them for the first time. Because Doug has lost memory of his mother's death, he re-experiences that loss a second time. At the same time, Doug develops a fascinating sense of wonder about the world around him. When he swims in the ocean for the first time, he describes a child's sense of amazement mixed with an adult sensibility that allows him to process what he is experiencing. Memories of place also shift dramatically. When driving through London for the first time since his amnesia began, Doug seeing Westminster Abbey comments, "This is like that movie, 28 Days Later."

But for me, the most compelling scenes involved Doug watching old home movies of himself hanging out with his friends at the pub or goofing for the camera just a few years earlier. As he watches the films, Doug notes that not only does he have no memory of these events, but he also barely recognizes himself. Towards the end of the film, Doug makes an anlogy between watching these films and time travel, noting the degree to which they take him back to past he doesn't remember. This lost past does allow Doug to "reinvent" himself, or perhaps to "invent" himself, since he has no memory of who he was before the amnesia took hold. Doug's sister describes him as more gentle, while Doug's photography teacher believes that Doug's amnesia may have provided him with new insight into the human psyche, admiring portraits that seem to offer a deeper and unexpected understanding of the people he photographs.

Murray identifies Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (my article) and Andrei Tarkovsky as major influences, and that seems like a pretty good read to me. Doug's story offers a profound meditation on cinema, memory, and identity, even as Doug himself searches for--and seems to find--a new identity for himself.

Posted by chuck at March 19, 2006 10:53 AM

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Damn, you! I'm going to Chicago next week, and this is showing. Now I have something else on my list that I feel like I have to do! We're also thinking of seeing CSA: Confederate States of America while we're there.

Posted by: Nels at March 19, 2006 3:31 PM

Oh, wow, I'm incredibly curious about CSA. I'm tempted to encourage you to see that instead to get a good reveiew before I see it.

But even if it is a hoax, Unknown White Male is a fascinating meditation on memory, and Doug Bruce's backstory only adds to the fascination.

Posted by: Chuck at March 19, 2006 3:38 PM

This sounds really interesting - hope it's released in Australia.

Posted by: Laura at March 20, 2006 4:32 AM

Laura, there's no release date on IMDB, but the Australian review board has rated the film "M" (for mature?) according to IMDB, so it sounds like it will be distributed over there.

Posted by: Chuck at March 20, 2006 1:23 PM

What is so interesting about this film is not whether the amnesia was faked or not, but that it addresses the question of what we really are. The "person" being a collection of memories with a "me" story, a past, specifically a human who lives through the veil of a conditioned mind. When Douglas asked his father why he should take his families' advice about something rather than another's advice his father had no reply. The truly beautiful thing about this movie is that it showed a man living completely in the present (largely because he no longer saw through the eyes of his conditioned past, experiencing the wonder and joy of being alive, seeing the world as it really is. Douglas alludes to this when he says that the room of his past momentos is the truth, everything else is interpretation through others' eyes. He said there were some friends from the past who he didn't instinctively connect with now and without the past memories to keep him there, he didn't want to keep contact. What a wonderful thing to be able to live according to deeper instinct. Douglas was ambivalent about regaining his memory. Probably this was because he found peace in being in the present without all the baggage. Most people beleive that they are their thoughts, their memories, - this becomes a person identified completely with their minds. Douglas actually received a great gift- to know who he really is with a large chunk of mind out of the way. Some people meditate for years to learn to still the mind, discover no thought and understand that our true essence is not our thoughts/memories.

Posted by: Sarah at November 21, 2006 7:59 PM

Sarah, I think you're right that it doesn't matter whether the amnesia is fake or not, but I'm wondering whether it's correct to say that losing memories brings us to "who we really are." Aren't we largely constituted by those memories? It seems artificial to suggest that our memories and experiences are only so much excess baggage weighing down on our "true" identity.

Still, it's an interesting film (and I'm going to be writing at length on it in the near future). BTW, if any Australian readers happen to stop back by, is there any reason why I'm suddenly getting tons of hits from Australia for this particular film?

Posted by: Chuck at November 21, 2006 10:11 PM

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