I don’t even know what a documentary is anymore. The genre implies nonfiction, a story put on film that stands apart from mainstream features in that, though edited to shape a narrative, everything onscreen is real, or it’s supposed to be. A documentary is always telling a story, usually one so interesting or terrible that the filmmakers felt compelled to record it, but the observation message pics of the Hearts and Minds through Super Size Me era are giving way to a new kind of documentary that might best be called a video essay. These are films that are willing to fudge facts or stage recreations in the service of driving home a message, like Fahrenheit 9/11, which wasn’t so much a documentary as a master class in propaganda. This is the best way to classify Unknown White Male, an intriguing but dry documentary about an amnesiac that feels more like an idea for a documentary than an actual legitimate document; it’s a fascinating tale, and a leap of faith, but an emotionless film.
In Unknown White Male, first-time director Rupert Murray tells the story of his friend, Doug Bruce, who awakens one morning in July 2003 on a subway train at Coney Island with no idea of his identity or past. His very own Colorado Kid, Doug can’t remember anything about himself, so he turns to the police, who take him to the hospital. All this info is recounted to us by Doug, his friends, hospital staff, and a psychiatrist at the hospital, but from the start it’s clear that Murray’s documentary is going to be anything but objective. Murray has more of a Michael Moore bent when it comes to storytelling, since that’s what this film is: an emotional, impressionistic tale, not a scientific investigation. Murray’s narrative presence is clear from the first, talking in voice-over about “why I wanted to make this film.” Even so, Murray doesn’t appear on camera until the second half, and it also takes a while for any medical experts to show up. Dr. Daniel Schacter, a psychology professor at Harvard, is first heard as a voice-over describing the difference between semantic, procedural, and episodic memory; the nature of fugue states, where the mind suffers a dissociative break with the past; and other Intro to Psych stuff that’s all quite interesting, even if it’s not tied directly to Doug. But we don’t even know it’s Schacter speaking; at the start, it’s just some authoritative but intangible voice. After all, how can you dispute what you can’t see? Schacter returns several times to discourse on the nature of the mind, and there’s even an interview with him on the film’s official website, but he’s never seen with Doug, not once. In fact, no evidence is ever presented that Schacter interviewed or examined Doug, which makes Murray’s inclusion of Schacter slightly disingenuous, since most people will assume that Schacter is lending his medical expertise and the weight of the Harvard name to the situation, when in reality all he does is lay out some ground rules for basic brain functions and offer loose answers to some hypotheticals Murray throws out. Granted, Schacter’s sketchy presence doesn’t discredit Doug’s story, but it does raise a few questions about how far Murray is willing to go to tell the story he wants to tell.
Doug’s first few days after his memory loss are pieced together through interviews with hospital staff, friends, and family members, as well as a walking tour on which Doug narrates for the camera his journey around Coney Island and through the hospital as he recounts what it was like to try and rediscover who he was. He showed up at the hospital after the incident with no identification, and finds a phone number among his few possessions that leads him to an ex-girlfriend, who comes to the hospital to claim him. From there, he begins the uphill battle to piece together his life before his memory loss. And that life, it turns out, was pretty nice.
Doug used to live in England, where he made a nice living in the stock market, earning enough to finance trips he took with his friends to Barbados, Mount Everest, and anywhere else rich young men like to travel. Video footage taken on these vacations presents a cocky, confident young man, completely different from the new Doug and almost unrecognizable to Doug himself, who views the footage of his past life with a wonder and clinical detachment, and not without a certain sense of characteristic posturing. Whether this posturing is subconscious is hard to tell, but Doug presents himself as a kind of reborn, pure specimen, observing the world with the calm passivity of Dave Bowman after he turned into the Star Child or Chance the gardener walking on water. Only here, this guy’s for real.
Murray, who knew Doug in England, flies to New York to see him several months after Doug’s memory loss, and brings a camera to record their awkward reintroductions. His filmed interview with Doug on that date results in a startling admission from Doug: He’s not even that excited about getting his memory back, and feels no real sense of loss at the friendships that don’t exist anymore, which is confusing. The decision to move on seems to be something you’d make with full knowledge of what you were leaving, but Doug doesn’t seem that perturbed at being told that he had friends, and love, and a life, and that it’s all gone now. All of this is mirrored in Murray’s fixation with static shots; the camera almost never moves, except for the handheld shots following Doug around town. The film suffers from a brutal lack of pacing; the whole thing feels like a pause between more competent, confident acts.
Doug is examined by doctors who don’t find anything wrong with his brain, which, again, doesn’t directly discredit him. You can’t just call him a liar because you might doubt his story; there’s ultimately no way to know what’s going on his head, just as, for instance, there’s no way for you to prove one way or the other that I’m thinking of the number eight right now. Philosophical navel-gazing aside, there are some things that have to be taken on faith.
The truest moment in Unknown White Male comes when Doug visits a storage unit in France to dig through his old stuff to try and piece together some more of his past. Surrounded by the physical detritus of his past, Doug is finally able to stop relying on friends’ and relatives’ versions of his history and start placing his hands on the actual remnants of his life. It’s a “room of complete truth,” Doug says, and he’s right. The recollections of loved ones can create a sketch of our personalities, but they can’t hold a candle to the stuff we own. Unfortunately, the film itself is more like those rumors of his past life Doug keeps trying to shake: Interesting, and more than likely valid, but impossible to trust.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.Unknown White Male / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()