Unknown White Male

Mar 15, 2006 at 12:00 am

Imagine being able to experience the world with a newly blank slate; all memories, relationships, successes and failures would disappear — sort of like hitting the "reset" button on life.

This is exactly what happened to 35-year-old former stockbroker and photography student Doug Bruce. On July 3, 2003, while riding the New York subway, Bruce suddenly experienced a rare form of retrograde amnesia. Though his entire episodic (autobiographical) memory was wiped clean, his procedural (skill-based) memory remained intact.

With no sense of past or self, Bruce got off the train and went to the police, who checked him into a psychiatric ward as an unknown white male. Handsome, educated and well-mannered, he tested negative for drugs or alcohol. His backpack held no wallet or ID, only a set of keys and an American-Spanish phrasebook. A scrap of paper with a woman's name and phone number was the only clue to his identity. It was an ex-girlfriend, who retrieved him from the hospital and brought him home to his East Village loft. Over the course of a year, Bruce videotaped himself as he pieced together the facts of his forgotten life while trying to forge a new identity for himself.

British TV documentarian Rupert Murray, who'd known Bruce for nearly two decades, decided to make Unknown White Male to document the experience. Though Doug no longer recognized him as a friend, Murray still managed to secure his full cooperation.

Through home videos, photographs, interviews and cinematic interpretation, Murray captures the extremely personal and painful journey of an amnesiac as he reconstructs his lost life. It's an occasionally fascinating but ultimately alienating film that fails to find empathy for its subject. Though the film traces every moment of Bruce's reorientation, he remains an emotionally distant person (no doubt due to his lost sense of identity) and it becomes difficult to connect with his unique dilemma.

Forced to reconnect with people who expect him to be a person who, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists, Bruce picks through the pieces of his past to reinvent his persona. Reintroduced to friends, family, and former lovers, Unknown White Male paints an intimate portrait of a man selectively using the past to reinvent his identity. The movie becomes less an investigation into Doug Bruce's improbable psychological trauma, and more of a musing on the nature of the self. Is personality dictated solely by our experiences, or is there something innate about our identity?

Unfortunately, both Murray and Bruce's insights are rather banal and impersonal.

From a filmmaking standpoint, the director's clinically intoned observations aren't a good match for such an intimate portrait. The whole affair comes off as intriguing but emotionally sterile, which is surprising given the filmmaker's friendship with the subject.

Murray uses fish-eye lenses, time-lapse photography and abstract electronic music to re-create a sense of disorientation, but the gimmicks are merely distracting. The film would have been better served by more emotional resonance; Bruce's interactions with his father and two sisters come off as unrevealing and overly reserved. Perhaps if Murray had spent more time establishing the family's past, we would better understand what we see. Worse still, we never meet any of the doctors who examined Bruce (though attention is given to a tumor that later develops on his pituitary gland) and little biological explanation is given.

Some critics have questioned the authenticity of the film, suggesting it could be the cinematic kin to James Frey's literary hoax. But as outlandish as Doug Bruce's situation may be, there's little to suggest it's fraudulent. Ultimately, what's remarkable about Unknown White Male is how unaffecting this bizarre and potentially intriguing story turns out to be.


Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].