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Director Rupert Murray has had to fend off accusations that his film is
a fake and it's not hard to see why. Murray is a first-time filmmaker
and not a documentarian or journalist of any kind. So a few minutes in
when Murray intones loudly and unnecessarily with his best imitation of
Nick Broomfield, its sheer inappropriateness seems like parody. UWM has
to be the least rigorous pose a documentary filmmaker can possibly
It purports to be the story of Doug Bruce, an Englishman in New York who claims one day to have suffered a complete loss of memory. If Murray had any interest in science, he might've happened upon the fact that the fugue state he describes as being incredibly rare is actually quite common. Several cases a year are documented in the UK alone and a fair amount of case history exists from at least the late 19th C. Instead, Bruce is presented as a pioneer, experiencing something of which medical and psychiatric science has little to no knowledge ofall the better to romanticise Bruce's condition, to which Murray applies a gloss more typical of Hollywood.
That Murray is a friend at least explains his access to his subject and offers some explanation for the lack of objectivity. Instead of a probing investigation, Murray pointlessly renders Bruce's experience through endless sequences of unrelated, rapidly cut imagery of buildings, street corners, cloud formations, fireworks, etc., finding much value in that Final Cut Pro license, no doubt.
A fugue state is a dissociative break from identity and, in reality, is brought on by stressful events. No one in Doug Bruce's life has any interest in what might have caused such a break. No one is probed for knowledge of what was going on in his life and Murray hasn't the skill or fortitude to investigate it for himself. One suspects there must be some clues that would further illuminate the situation. E-mails, bank statements, credit card statements, phone records, etc. would contribute something to the picture but none of this figures in Murray's film.
Instead, we get a highly subjective, sketchy portrait of Doug Bruce who seems to exert a high level of control over the people in his life. No one dares to puncture his assertion of total memory loss, instead they welcome his presentation as a Forrest Gump-like sage of simple wisdomeven when that wisdom is directed at his own father with the force of a silenced revolver. Bruce is surrounded by women in NY; his former girlfriend from Poland appears to take up residence in his East Village loft; an Australian woman falls in love with the new Bruce 2.0 claiming he is without fault; another young woman and her mother nearly adopt him as family. They all eroticise Bruce as a man-child. Predictably, his allure is completely irresistible. Murray never investigates this either.
Murray introduces home movie footage of the man previously known as Doug Bruce, who seems little more than a spoilt, almost callow young man of privilege, which is the one constant of both incarnations of Doug Bruce: wealth and privilege. Bruce lived in a loft the size of which even Monica on Friends could only dream about; for all his medical concerns, Bruce doesn't appear to have any financial worries. His bank account apparently allows him to move forward as his new self with complete ease. There is never any apparent change in his lifestyle.
Bruce expresses no surprise or is at all humbled by the rather lofty, elevated circumstances he finds himself in. There is no relief expressed to find that he is not one of the 45 million people or so in the United States without health insurance. One of the joys of memory loss apparently is rediscovering foodespecially if you can afford to tool around NY eating in its finest restaurants. For his part, Bruce expresses little distress or curiosity of his former self and is rather pleased to have suddenly just sprung into existence as a grown man cut off from any sense or, more importantly, OBLIGATION of personal history.
The filmmakers, Bruce's friends and somewhat unwillingly, his family, pretty much encourage his voluntary loss of memory or hoax, which isn't meant to disparage any of the participants. But Bruce's claims of complete memory loss are less than convincing. When Bruce returns to London, he states that, in comparison to the women that surround him in NY, his former friends seem "more like lads," a buzzword of '90's London that belies his claim of total memory loss. He also overly obliges the image of himself as innocent yet wise man-child to a faultwhen introduced to a newborn, Bruce marvels not only as if he'd never seen one before but as if he'd never before contemplated our origins as infants. It is a ridiculous scenario of over-the-top romanticism of which this film frequently indulges. (Not surprisingly, we're never offered a similar sequence of Bruce rediscovering homeless people in NY or disparate lifestyles.)
That Bruce is able to move forward apparently without the aid of any counselling, more than happy to fashion a self somewhere between Chauncy Gardener and Forrest Gump, even more at ease assuming the lifestyle trappings of a stranger, strains credibility, which isn't to say that he himself doesn't believe it. What's more difficult is Murray's fashionable post-Memento interest in his friend as romanticised contemporary hero. Murray knows there is a story here, he just doesn't have a clue what it is. The complete disposability of Doug Bruce's former self (and, by extension, possibly Murray's present self) is well outside Murray's own awareness.
The subject matter is intriguing; for no apparent reason, a man loses
his memory. He doesn't know his name, or friends or family, and has to
rebuild his life.
Unfortunately, his friend, the filmmaker, takes too much artistic license in trying to create mood. Between too many shaky camera sequences and gratuitous b-roll, it loses the audience quickly. It reminded me of WILD BLUE YONDER which spent too much time with atmosphere and not enough time with content.
It's worth a view to be a voyeur, and watch a man rebuild his life, and decide on what to embrace from his past, and how to continue into the future.
I saw this film last night and was very disappointed with it. It is
quite apparent that the filmmakers have no training in how to construct
an interesting story. This film is about as interesting as watching
someone's home movies. The interviews with Doug, his family and friends
make no attempt to delve into the startling revelation that Doug has
completely lost all sense of his past. They all might as well be
talking about what Doug plans to do after graduating from art school
rather than talk about how Doug will handle "re-starting" his existence
at age 37. There seem to be some small clues in the film that may
explain how poorly it was put together. Doug spends little time back in
Europe with his former friends and family and they don't seem to make
the journey to visit him either (except for the filmmaker). Doug
himself mentions that his British mates seem to have deep feelings for
him but they seem concealed by a typical British avoidance of such
That is exactly how this film feels (or doesn't feel). There is almost no emotional connection to the film or the subjects (even Doug). You don't really even walk away with a "There but for the grace of God go I" empathy towards Doug. The most riveting emotional notes are in the first 10 minutes as Doug recalls the first hours of his amnesia and his complete feeling of being lost and real terror about not even knowing who he might be able to call to come pick him up from the hospital. After that, it is if the film has been sterilized of all emotional "infection". Even as a factual depiction of this extreme form of amnesia it falls very short of being informative or interesting.
Without apologizing for the filmmakers, I can understand how they would not want to use this opportunity to manipulate or exploit Doug's situation or his condition by forcing some kind of confrontation with Doug's past. But the film goers don't get any real kind of bridge with Doug's past either (or his present for that matter). Without that, you can't really move yourself emotionally into either wanting Doug to regain his memory or rooting for him to carry on with a new existence that is different and separate from his past. It is almost as if even his old friends and family didn't really know him all that well so there wasn't much of Doug for them to lose.
This movie should have some kind of theme to it. Loss...renewal...exploration...frustration...something...anything! And the filmmaker would have been better served to get some professional help with the subject and maybe take more time with the project to see if a more interesting story develops.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Did this guy actually suffer amnesia? ...Maybe, I don't know, only he
and Rupert and anyone behind this documentary knows. However, you can't
help but question what is true throughout the film because everything
in it falls into place perfectly as if it were scripted in
pre-production. How convenient that he leaves his apartment and forgets
his wallet but remembers to carry a backpack that contains several
clues to who he is including a phone number. Why convenient? Because if
he had his wallet then the beginning of the film, talking to the police
and being committed to a mental hospital, would have gone out the
But let's give him the benefit of the doubt, suppose this is all true, then let's consider the entertainment value of the film. It's ultimately boring. Why? Because he suffers no real obstacles, conflicts, anything to show him struggle and suffer and fall in his quest so we can cheer him on when he gets up to conquer all that opposes him. Okay, this is not The Lord of the Rings, but nothing really happens and that's because he has a cushion to fall back on.
Anyone else would have roamed the streets for days petrified, taken advantage of by preying opportunists and thugs, ended up sleeping under the Coney Island boardwalk before being eventually arrested by the police for acting suspicious and possibly sent to a homeless shelter and so on. He would have been fired from his job and evicted by the time someone would have found him thanks to the missing posters or at least by the police checking to see who the hell he was. Then he would have had to rebuild everything that has crumbled underneath from his past. But that's not the film you'll see, instead Doug is rich, lives in a loft and takes photography classes just because...well, because he has an interest in it since he retired in his thirties as a successful stockbroker. He doesn't need to worry about the rent, health insurance or a job because he's rich. How convenient.
To make for the fact that nothing really happens, even when he meets family and friends, we are thrust into a bad drug induced trip through the barrage of meaningless images to fill up the time. Rupert, who is well equipped to document everything, narrates over the images but doesn't really include any insightful information.
So what are we left with? It could have been a decent faux short documentary but instead we have a film that drags on forever because we never really see Doug struggle and in the end really achieve anything at all. Because of this I breathed a sigh of relief when the credits came up and I ran.
Personally I'm a 55 year old white male with a degenerative
neurological disorder. In 1993 the randomly occurring damage took out
the equivalent of my FAT for those of you who are computer geeks.
Presumably all my memories were "there." Just no organized way to find
any. Think, of yourself as a library, hit by a flood. The pages of
information may still be there. But not even adjacent to each other,
much less in the right section of the library.
I'd walked down the hall and had the familiar experience of "what did I come in here for?" But I then realized I couldn't think of _anything_ that I had a "desire" for. I remember thinking, "Do I like blueberry pie?" I couldn't even tell if food in general was something I considered important. All the factual data was there, name, numbers, etc. But nothing about me as an individual. It took five long years to rebuild a replacement personality.
As such, this film was a very intense experience for me. (It did remind me of how much it's possible to love another person.) I would probably preferred to wait and rent it on video. But there were some yahoos (Look up Swift's Gulliver's Travels to understand the term.) who insisted the film was a fake. So I felt obliged to go see it, not just trust the opinion of reviewers like Roger Ebert. My wife and I both strongly disliked the music. As a movie, it's definitely so-so quality. But it's asking a lot to expect that an exceptional event would happen to an exceptional film maker. If Oliver Sacks wasn't a good writer there would be no "Awakenings."
I definitely would recommend that people see the movie if they care about what being an "individual" means. If you have it on DVD, watch the clips of Mr. Bruce before the "event." Get a good sense of that person. Then contrast it with who's there in that body at different times after the event. Note the purity of the love felt by the mother and daughter that first looked after him, while he was still a "child." I've had the experience of doing that with my best friend. The 9-12 months that I helped him put his life back together is the closest I'll ever come to being a parent. I wouldn't trade that joy for anything.
For further reading I would strongly suggest the very entertaining "Phantoms in the Brain" by V. S. Ramachandran and "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat" by Oliver Sacks. For exploring the limits of what consciousness is "Dancing Naked in the Mind Field" by Kary Mullis. These are both entertaining and informative, if you're not afraid to find out how little you know.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
According to the narrator of UNKNOWN WHITE MALE, Englishman Douglas
Bruce mysteriously lost his memory one chilly autumn day and found
himself walking around Coney Island in New York City in shorts and
sandals. The film begins there with a brief recap of the events of his
time in Coney Island and a psychiatric ward. In addition to interviews
with doctors, Bruce's friends, girlfriends and family members, the
viewer also sees footage Bruce shot himself in the days following his
break from memory. So we see him rediscover such things as his
apartment, different foods, and even a reunion with his father and two
sisters, as well as various friends.
This should be enlightening, exciting, fascinating or at the very least mildly interesting. But, very quickly after the first ten minutes or so of UNKNOWN WHITE MALE, it all becomes very uninteresting. This is a film about a 30-year-old man who has lost all of his memory. How possibly could this film not be engaging? Leave that to the particular talents of the director, or lack thereof, since director Rupert Murray manages to make the subject matter a fairly tedious exercise.
As any dime store dramatist knows, conflict is what makes a story interesting. However, incredulously, there seems to be very little in a documentary film about a man who's lost his memory.
There is no desperation to the situation. And as a work of non-fiction, this is, again, puzzling. Bruce has no financial worries, and has plenty of support at home. An ex-girlfriend flies from Poland to help him and Bruce is even "adopted" by another ex-girlfriends mother. What the film focuses on is his self-absorbed muddle through one encounter after another. There are only so many scenes of Bruce asking, in a child-like way, "what is this new food" when he samples chocolate again for the first time amongst other experiences. The most dramatic moment is Bruce meeting his father and sisters for the first time and learning that his mother has passed away some time before.
His father and sisters seemed genuine enough and the moment felt sincere in its awkwardness, but, ultimately, I couldn't take much meaning away from it. The same held true when Bruce learns his mother was dead. As a dramatic moment it rang false. It just seems odd to be upset about a person he doesn't know. Seems more played for dramatic effect then anything else and that effect wasn't there.
Because of this lack of drama, the occasional epiphanies about what is life and how our memories fit into the scheme of things, UNKNOWN WHITE MALE comes across as rather labored. There is only so much of Bruce's puppy dog eyes and meanderings a person can take.
There is some controversy surrounding the film regarding whether or not Douglas Bruce is faking his memory loss and thus making the entire film a sham. I honestly couldn't care less and I think that is the main problem with UNKNOWN WHITE MALE I just don't care. For the record, however, I doubt that Mr. Bruce lost his memory. In addition to his history of self-indulgent adventures with his friends, he simply acts too much like someone who's lost their memory. And really, that's just it. It's as if he's giving a performance rather then merely being.
In the end it doesn't really matter, since there is little to take from UNKNOWN WHITE MALE other then it's pretense and the mild interest of whether or not Bruce is faking it. I would have to go with what the French woman sitting next to me said during the film. "Zis Feelm et is so borhwring. Zis manh is ahnoying" Yes, unknown French female, he and et is.
The video account in Unknown White Male was brilliant.I have watched
different movies about amnesia, which is always a good story line but
this one was very different and very real.
It reduced me to tears as I had suffered almost the same thing in the late sixties. This was without doubt the closest account I'd come across. The memory holds many facets, numerical, verbal, pictorial, humour, love, jokes, innuendos, the subtleties within our language, age old phrases, the list goes on.It's as though you're from another planet.
This is something impossible to fake as your whole identity is lost, and you come, in time, to accept that no one really understands, not even doctors. It's not a general thing, that others can comprehend within their own life experiences.
It has taken me nearly thirty years to come to terms with what happened to me, as at the time, understanding of the psychological long term effects of amnesia was very limited. I found this young man's story an inspiration and could relate with him in so many ways. The need to tape it, to remember, to have some data when there's nothing else. I wrote diaries and even put little pictures of the weather in the corner to keep remembering.
I saw this movie at a film festival in Nantucket and all I can say is: wow. Wow for the story of the documentary, wow for Doug's personal strength, wow for Rupert's unflinching look into his best friend's new life. The movie centers on a day in July in 2003, where Doug Bruce comes to on a subway in Coney Island with no recollection of where he was, what he was doing or who he was. He went to a local police office, who brought him to an ER and then was later checked into a mental facility. He finds a number in his backpack, which leads him to an old girlfriend who comes to claim him. This might seem like the end of the story, but it is really only the beginning, because Doug still has no memory of any day in the last 35 years of his life. I found myself not wanting the film to end, and when the credits started to role I felt slightly depressed in the fact that I wouldn't be able to know any more about Doug Bruce's life unless another documentary was made. See this movie, see it again, tell all your friends!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The idea itself seems repellent to most people. In addition, Doug's apparent lack of enthusiasm for regaining his memory seems disturbing to human beings who's entire existence is defined by our memory of experiences. The reality of the situation is the impossibility to be longing and nostalgic for memories that don't exist in your psyche. In conjunction with the obvious commercial motive for faking this film, would the filmmakers and Doug himself be willing to ruin their credibility over a low budget Indi film? As far as I know, no one has ever been able to find any of the newspaper reports alleged in the film. What can't be denied is the fact that any film that makes you ponder the context and characters, be it real or fake, is worth the watch.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I really wanted to enjoy this film. The subject-matter was great and
I'd read some interesting articles in the press beforehand. A family
member had suffered a similar condition (retrograde amnesia) that Doug
Bruce experiences in the film some years ago, so it was of particular
relevance to me.
Ultimately, this is a disappointing, frustrating film. It is certainly well made and director Rupert Murray deserves some praise for how he reconstructed a story where not much original material is available. However, the film actually doesn't reveal very much. I wanted it to go much further into the clinical aspects of the condition - how was it caused? how is it treated? - but instead we have to endure the tedious meeting between Bruce and his friends in London, none of whom has very much to offer.
Is this a film about the clinical aspects of the condition, or is it a film about forgetting who your friends are? The film couldn't decide. The lack of weighty material on the clinical side is perhaps one reason why some critics have found it hard to take the film seriously.
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