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Tabula Rasa: Rupert Murray’s “Unknown White Male”

Tabula Rasa: Rupert Murray's "Unknown White Male"

On a cold and rainy morning in July, 2003, Douglas Bruce, a 35-year-old stockbroker-turned-photographer, woke to find himself on a subway train headed for Coney Island with no knowledge of who he was or where he was going. In his backpack were dog medicine and a book with a scrap of paper on which someone had written “Eva Eckhart.” That name would be his lifeline; but for the moment, confused and upset, Bruce remembered only enough to head for the nearest police station.

In his mesmerizing and miraculous documentary “Unknown White Male“–the designation Bruce is given by the hospital where he is initially evaluated–director and longtime friend Rupert Murray follows Bruce as he nervously returns to a life he no longer recognizes. Whether from physical injury, emotional trauma, or a spontaneous neural crash, Bruce has suffered a rare form of retrograde amnesia known as a “fugue state” and has lost not only his episodic memory–the ability to recall personal experiences–but also much of his knowledge of the world. While the horror of this is sinking in, the film unleashes one of its most devastating scenes: asked to sign a hospital document, Bruce automatically signs his name. The writing is illegible, but the act itself transformative. At that moment, Bruce tearfully recalls, he realized “I am somebody.”

That claim is the agitated heart of “Unknown White Male,” a film which structures one man’s agonizing journey like a primer on the nature of identity and the roots of the self. Piecing together old home movies, interviews with family and friends, and comments from professionals wading knee-deep into the psyche, Murray gently nudges his material in an increasingly philosophical direction. How much of our personality is formed by memory, Bruce wonders at one point, and how much is “pure us”? And as we listen to loved ones compare the Bruce they used to know–arrogant, charismatic, cynical, driven–to this tentative, reflective man with a newfound interest in existentialism, their need to reunite the two is clearly the source of their deepest pain. While Bruce instinctively fears and mistrusts his past–where, he believes, unconfronted traumas lurk–those closest to him can only move forward by forcing him to relive it.

One of the most remarkable achievements of Murray’s film is the increasingly poignant illumination of this standoff, an emotional tug-of-war whose conflicting demands are most evident when Bruce, a London transplant, returns there to visit some of his oldest friends. As lads in their twenties, they had bonded over West Indian cricket and Chelsea Football Club; now they sip beer and stare awkwardly at this stranger who looks like their friend yet feels like an impostor–a pod person. Scraps of old footage showing boisterous young men, full of jokes and attitude and easy confidence, give way to fidgeting adults and strained silences. The dashing, laughing boy who loved to climb mountains and was always in motion has been replaced by a still, wary man with oddly innocent eyes. Quoting John Locke, one of the film’s interviewees remarks that Bruce is “certainly the same man, questionably the same person.”

With its twin themes of tragedy and opportunity, “Unknown White Male” is an unusually moving tale of disaster, acceptance, and renewal. The desire to start over is one of our most resilient fantasies, and as the film progresses and Murray defers more and more to Bruce’s own video journal, we’re confronted with a brutally honest, one-day-at-a-time record of reinvention. Exploring his East Village loft and the galleries of Manhattan, marveling at the sight of snow and the texture of chocolate mousse, Bruce experiences the world with the eyes of a newborn and the mind of an adult. This blend of innocence and maturity is reflected in his reengagement with photography, a series of sad, blank-eyed portraits that are strikingly personal and good enough to raise serious questions about the nature of creativity itself.

Alternately soothing and frightening, optimistic and heartbreaking, “Unknown White Male” pulls off something quite difficult, conveying profound emotional shifts without ever becoming maudlin or melodramatic. As Bruce builds new relationships, the endurance of the old suggests bonds that transcend the cord of memory. “Don’t worry, you have a great life,” said the girlfriend who would rescue him from the hospital on that cold July day in 2003. She was right.

[Jeannette Catsoulis is a Reverse Shot. staff writer who has also written for the Independent, DC One Magazine, and is a regular film critic for the New York Times. ]

A scene from Rupert Murray’s “Unknown White Male.” Photo courtesy of Wellspring.

Take 2 by Michael Joshua Rowin

It’s difficult not to dislike “Unknown White Male”‘s protagonist and case study, Doug Bruce. A handsome young man of wealth and privilege, Brit lad (in America we say “frat boy”) Bruce blithely makes the world his personal playground in home movie footage pre-amnesia (his photography professor even calls his snaps of the poor and elderly from this period “ideologically problematic”) and then, aside from an initial bewilderment and fear, takes up another life with a disturbingly similar, albeit it colder, arrogance after he awakens from his unprecedented fugue state. While documentary filmmaker and Bruce’s friend Rupert Murray’s sloppiness and obscurantism have already forced viewers to cast a wary eye on the authenticity of “Unknown White Male” (hmmm, where have we heard of similar scrutiny of nonfiction recently?), the idealization of his once unspectacular subject as reborn wide-eyed innocent should be a greater cause of concern.

The truism goes that cinema can frame the world around us as if we were viewing it for the first time, but “Unknown White Male”‘s hackneyed montage sequences–a fumbled juxtaposition of Doug recording his “first” experiences of snow and a fireworks display, a Final Cut Pro-induced disaster in which Doug’s reencounter with world history is presented as a short blast of archival footage–unforgivably fail to impart the wonder of seeing anew. Disappointing, because once the issues concerning identity and the difficulties Doug’s friends and family have coming to terms with his rebooted self wash away due to Murray’s less than penetrating documentary skills, we’re left with lazy shots of hands pouring through sand, silhouettes wandering across sunsets, all the standbys of picture postcard, “living life to its fullest” tableaux. But maybe such images appropriately compliment this strangely unaffecting tale: considering Bruce’s satisfied insulation, his metamorphosis from cocky bore to reflective soul comes off less like a genuine reawakening than the yuppie fantasy of “Regarding Henry.”

[Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. He also writes for L magazine, Stop Smiling, and runs the blog Hopeless Abandon.]

Take 3 By Nicolas Rapold

Is “Unknown White Male” the most hilarious example of the persistence of class-consciousness or what? Poor Doug Bruce struggles to remember things like his family’s faces or the history of Western culture–but when it comes to re-settling into a life of wealth and leisure as a retired stockbroker-turned-photographer with gorgeous girlfriends and friends with money, no problem! Sign him up: Doug hardly bats an eye at reassuming the lifestyle to which he had been accustomed.

Even in the tender moments of oblivion immediately after the event, Doug knows at least what sort of fellow he is. Looking out the subway car where he wakes up, he sees some big, boring, public-housing-like buildings, and he’s sure–quite sure–he has never seen them before. “I don’t remember anything, except I know where I’ve been, and I’m not THAT sort!”

Viewed in this light, “Unknown White Male” starts to sound like the premise for some lost Fassbinder call to class arms, except that things turn out a little too rosily for our antihero. But it’s missing the satisfaction of comeuppance or catharsis. So Doug is a fascinating empty vessel, so shellshocked that we get to see him as a class actor, without having our emotions aroused. There are all sorts of possibilities for this movie, but director Rupert Murray is too busy with his hard-sell voiceover, embarrassing montages, willfully incomplete information, etc. For anyone that might question it all, he seems to allow the excuse of the Problematic Documentary, running interference with unknowability-of-the-self platitudes. Still, even the outlines of the story are interesting enough to pontificate about, the kind of news clipping that might inspire a novelist or bad playwright. And, what do you know, it’s happened again–quick, documentarians, get to work on Raymond Power, Jr.!

[Nicolas Rapold is a Reverse Shot staff writer, the assistant editor of Film Comment, the film editor of Stop Smiling, and a regular contributor to the New York Sun.]

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