March 04, 2006

MOVIES: Unknown White Male (Rupert Murray, 2005)

How much of who we are is based on what has happened to us? If we suddenly lost the memories of our experiences and our relationships, would be be the same person?

These are among the questions raised by Murray's documentary about the experience of his friend, Doug Bruce.

Bruce is riding a subway when he realizes that he has no idea where he is or where he's coming from; in fact, he doesn't even remember who he is. He's carrying no wallet or identification, and can't find anything in his backpack to connect him to his identity.

He goes to the police; they have no luck figuring out who he is, and turn him over to the psychiatric ward of the local hospital. He finally finds a phone number on a slip of paper buried in a book in his pack, which connects him to a former girlfriend.

Before his amnesia, Bruce had a charmed life -- wealthy family, global jet-setting lifestyle, striking good looks, successful career as a stockbroker -- and things aren't much different afterwards. His friends and family seem more affected by the experience than Bruce does; they're struggling to reacquaint themselves with their friend, who isn't quite the same man they knew.

At first, Bruce is understandably terrified by his memory loss, and the doctors are unable to provide any explanation for what's happened. Once the initial shock wears off, though, Bruce seems to adjust surprisingly easy (and begins videotaping his life almost immediately), and shows little interest in finding an answer or in regaining his memories.

That quick adjustment is one of the things that has led some people to suspect that the movie may be an elaborate hoax; in this post-Frey era, anything that's presented as memoir will be greeted with suspicion. It does seem odd, after all, that a man would be traveling around New York with no money or identification, or that the only phone number he'd be carrying would belong to the mother of a woman he'd recently dated a few times.

But unless you're willing to believe that all of Bruce's friends and family are in on the hoax, it's hard to imagine anyone pulling it off; complete memory loss would be a difficult thing to fake, with opportunities to slip up lurking in almost every conversation.

Murray's not much of a filmmaker. He relies far too heavily on fisheye lenses and other distortions as a reflection of Bruce's confused mental state, and on meaningless shots of clouds and water to fill time while people talk. But Bruce's story is so inherently interesting (and the possibility that it is a hoax makes it even more so; I found myself constantly watching for slipups and clues) that it overcomes Murray's limitations.

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