Nothing Matters

Washington City Paper | March 17, 2006
If there’s a hack screenwriter in all of us, the scenario of Unknown White Male ought to bring him out. After all, a handsome 30-something’s losing his memory practically begs for noir shaping: existential metaphors and grainy black-and-white flashbacks, sloe-eyed women and terrible secrets that must stay hidden at all costs.

But this is a documentary, so we’re stuck with the actuality of Doug Bruce’s experience—which, it turns out, is too complex for existential metaphors or cheesiness or even a climax. The only thing that we know for certain is that sometime between July 1 and July 3, 2003, Bruce lost himself in a profound way. He “woke up” on a New York subway headed toward Coney Island and couldn’t remember his name, where he was from, or what he did for a living. His speech and cognitive faculties were intact, even his English accent, but he couldn’t recall the name of a single friend or lover any more than he could picture his dead mother or still-living father. Scraps of information discovered in the backpack Bruce was wearing pointed to acquaintances who identified him as a wealthy, prematurely retired stockbroker who’d been pursuing an amateur interest in photography.

Bruce’s condition, retrograde amnesia, is rare enough to baffle even the most esteemed medical minds. And one of the strongest assets of Rupert Murray’s patiently observed documentary is that it resists the need to explain what can’t be explained. Unknown White Male is mainly concerned with how a lost man finds himself again—and who, exactly, is being found.

From the start, Murray has a personal stake in these issues. As one of Bruce’s closest friends, he brings to their exchanges a common history that is all the more bittersweet for being nullified. The old frames of reference—rock bands, soccer, West Indian cricket—have dropped away, and when Bruce reunites with the rest of his London mates, they circle one another like strangers, picking their way across barren and reconstructed terrain.

Indeed, it becomes clear that one of the greatest strains on Bruce’s recovery is the pressure of living up to his previous identity. “I feel much more comfortable,” he confesses, “with people who didn’t know me.” And no wonder. The “old Doug,” a fast-living, superconfident party boy, is being replaced by a rather different creature—one much more sensitive, open, and reflective.

To the wiped-clean slate of Bruce’s brain, everything is now a voyage of discovery: snow, a trip to the beach, a fireworks display. He watches the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace with the awe of a child. He discovers a great new band called the Rolling Stones. He samples the consuming glories of “first” love. (“He has no fault,” his new girlfriend says. “Yet.”) Little by little, the past loses its interest for him; he eventually admits that he doesn’t “care that much” if it ever comes back.

Despite indulging in such Errol Morris–y touches as convex lenses and distorted sound to convey Bruce’s initial dislocation, Murray tells this story with empathy and grace. Though he doesn’t shy away from offering his own take on events, he’s suitably humble before the underlying mysteries: Are we the sum total of our experiences? Or is there some substrate that lies apart from our environment, something that is pure us?

The film doesn’t answer those questions so much as pose them in interesting ways. But Unknown White Male is even more interesting for its subtle undermining of the sacredness of memory. Whatever horror Bruce’s mates and family members feel at the loss of his past slowly gives way to something else: a grudging envy. “I just feel 20 years older than him,” murmurs one pal. You need only glimpse the wonder in Bruce’s eyes to see why. The trauma of loss has allowed him to be, as Wordsworth put it, surprised by joy—to greet the world without the mediation or preconceptions of experience. It’s to Murray’s credit that he presents that state much as the poet did: as something beautiful and momentary, destined someday to be as lost as Bruce’s past.

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