Unknown White Male: Compelling Amnesia Story
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“If you lost your past, would you want it back?” That’s the question asked by the promo tag line for Rupert Murray’s new film, Unknown White Male — and for once a marketing hook is also an honest description of the most fascinating issue raised by a movie. The protagonist of this documentary, Douglas Bruce, is a thirty-something native Englishman in New York, who made a lot of money as a stockbroker, then quit at age 30 to become an art photographer. Five years later, on July 3, 2003, Bruce woke up on a New York subway train with no recollection whatsoever of his own identity or the previous 35 years of his life. Only by tracing a phone number in his possession — which turned out to be that of the mother of a woman he’d briefly dated and who had just broken up with him — were the police able to find out who he was.
Bruce was eventually diagnosed with total retrograde amnesia, a far rarer mental condition in real life than it is in fiction. For decades writers and filmmakers have frequently given it to characters for the sheer audience-provoking thrill of having someone suddenly come to consciousness without any idea of who they are or what they’ve been doing. It’s generally believed to be caused either by a head injury or a heart attack or stroke severe enough to cut off oxygen to the brain and thus damage it — a trope filmmakers in particular, from Alfred Hitchcock in Spellbound to Laurel and Hardy in A Chump at Oxford, have taken and run with. What makes Bruce’s condition even more unusual is that, though he’s been MRI’d and CAT-scanned up the ying-yang, doctors have so far been unable to trace back a cause for the sudden disappearance of his memory — nor, at least as of the completion of the film in 2005, had Bruce recovered any memories of his past.
The director of Unknown White Male, Rupert Murray, had been a friend of Bruce’s for nearly 20 years and had last seen him three months before his memory loss. Murray had a lot of video footage to draw on: his own, Bruce’s own and that taken by other friends of Bruce, including someone who shot him just six days after coming to as the start of what Murray calls a “video diary.” What makes this film unusually interesting is not only the rarity of the condition, and the chance to see the reality behind one of fiction’s most enduring myths, but that Murray’s focus is not on what caused Bruce’s amnesia or even the obvious pathos of having 35 years of your life erased with the thoroughness of a hard-drive crash, but on the excitement of Bruce’s rediscovery of the world and the dramatic changes in his personality as the rather superficial pre-amnesia party-person Bruce is replaced by a more philosophical, more introspective and (at least to this filmgoer) much more appealing human being.
It shouldn’t be surprising, given the ferocity with which media critics and Internet bloggers have gone after writers like James Frey and J. T. LeRoy for falsifying their own backgrounds (Frey for vastly exaggerating the scale of his drug addiction and legal troubles in his “memoir” A Million Little Pieces and “LeRoy” for creating a fake persona as a teenage Transgender prostitute to add authenticity to novels actually written by a forty-something woman), that the authenticity of Unknown White Male has been challenged. The film’s critics have asked why nobody could find a police record of Bruce’s “awakening” (Frey was exposed by the absence of a record of one of his alleged arrests), why so much video footage of him both before and after seemed to exist, and that Dr. Daniel Schacter, chair of the psychology department at Harvard, appears in the film only to give a generic description of retrograde amnesia and didn’t actually diagnose Bruce.
In this writer’s opinion, either Unknown White Male is totally authentic or Douglas Bruce is the greatest British-born actor since Laurence Olivier. His naïveté, his fumbling around the wreckage of his mind for an identity, and the evolution of the new Bruce persona over the two years’ worth of footage are all utterly convincing. As for the abundance of video footage, that’s explained more than anything else by the affluence of the characters. Bruce grew up in a well-to-do family which brought him up in Nigeria; today his father and one of his sisters live in Spain and his other sister lives in England and all of them take regular trips to France. People at this income level videotape each other as readily as the rest of us take still pictures with cheap cameras. The affluence affects Unknown White Male in another way: it gives Bruce the leisure time to explore his new identity and seek out the shards of his old one without the bothersome necessity of having immediately to pull himself together enough to get and hold a job.
What emerges most strongly from Unknown White Male (the title comes from what the New York police officer who picked him up wrote on his report before they figured out who he was) is Bruce’s almost childlike naïveté, his clear love of the opportunity to discover the world anew with the innocence of a child and the full cognitive powers of an adult. Bruce said so himself in an interview with Tad Friend for The New Yorker: “Since the accident, I feel a childlike — or what I imagine to be a childlike — wonder at new experiences, but also an analytical understanding.”
Yet in a peculiar way the incident, while restoring him to a state of childhood innocence, also seems to have matured him. There’s a dramatic visual contrast between the stark, empty loft he was living in when the accident occurred and the far warmer, homier flat he has now. It seems to have improved his taste in women, and his ability to sustain a relationship with one; we meet three of his girlfriends, two pre-accident and one, Narelle, his current partner — and not only does Narelle seem a more grounded, less guarded person, he relates to her as a first love “the way a teenager probably would,” as he told Friend. It’s also transformed him in another way: it’s cut him off from the rather boorish, boozy circle he ran with in London. The mutual incomprehension between Bruce and his British former drinking buddies when they finally meet again (in a pub!) is eloquently symbolized by Bruce’s disinterest in drinking with them and his insistence that he’s hungry and will order a meal instead.
Indeed, if Unknown White Male has a flaw it’s that sometimes it seems to make total memory loss so appealing a prospect that some viewers will be wondering, “Where do I sign up?” There are nods to the pathos that must be involved in having no recollection of who you were — particularly some poignant shots of Bruce flipping through his family’s photo albums and looking at pictures of himself as a boy with a blank, uncomprehending stare — but for the most part Murray’s approach to the film accentuates the positive. Narelle’s on-camera musing that she’s not sure she wants Bruce to recover his memory because she’s not sure she’d still love him if he reconnected with his past seems — despite his protestations of long-term friendship and the last-minute piece of narration explaining that 95 percent of retrograde amnesia patients do eventually remember everything — to represent Murray’s view as well.
Murray also overdirects at times — there are just way too many music video-like shots of billowing clouds and blazing sunsets — artificially heightening a story that would seem not to need it. But the basic story is powerful and convincing enough to make Unknown White Male a must-see to anyone interested in the quirkier parts of human existence.
Unknown White Male is playing Friday, March 17 through Thursday, March 23 at the Ken Cinema, 4061 Adams Avenue in Kensington. Please call (619) 819-0236 for showtimes and other information.