Unknown White Male
2005: Rupert Murray
PG-13 – 88 minutes
Vault Rating: 8
What would happen tomorrow if you emerged from a state of confusion and your mind had gone blank? What would it be like if everything you ever did and everyone you ever knew, indeed the entire person that you had come to be, had vanished?
This is precisely the condition in which Doug Bruce found himself one day in July 2003 in New York City. Bruce inexplicably suffered a rare case of retrograde amnesia and he is the subject of today’s compelling documentary, “Unknown White Male,” filmed by his friend, Rupert Murray, while Bruce struggled to get hold of the tethers of his life.
Bruce turns out to be an independently wealthy young Brit who’d made a killing in the stock market. A handsome, jet-setting bachelor, his life up to that point included beautiful women, talented friends and a loving family. Not that any of this mattered when he turned up without I.D. at a Coney Island police station after a period of dazed wandering.
Murray captures the terror and confusion of his subject that slowly melts away as he meets his family and friends again for the first time. Each meeting is awkward because the experiences that formed the foundation of these relationships no longer exist for Bruce. He is starting from scratch, after all, a clean slate.
I can best describe Bruce’s state of mind anecdotally. Once upon a time, my house burned down with me and my family inside. The shock of it was all very surreal. I was OK because we’d all gotten out onto a roof. But sitting in a neighbor’s house, it struck me that everything I’d ever written — every poem, song, piece of fiction, newspaper article … all of it — had gone up in flames. It was then that I broke down and cried.
What I came to realize, though, was that I got to start over again, fresh. It was liberating because I could write, knowing everything I know now, without any precondition. Losing everything was literarily the best thing that ever happened to me.
This is the ground that our amnesiac was covering. He was rediscovering what the city was, what being with a woman was, what getting high was, what feeling the ocean for the first time was, all with the power of adult observation to crystalize his experience. Doug Bruce, you see, was a new person.
How many would want that? Apparently, it isn’t all bad. Maybe forgetting is a good thing.
Yet Bruce was, by the tale of today’s film, hardwired to be the same SORT of person. Intensely creative and philosophical, Bruce was drawn back to the study of photography, as before, but with a new eye peering through the lens and with stoic portraiture emerging from the dark room.
I had previously thought stories about amnesia were only to be found on daytime soaps. It is fascinating to find such an authentic story, complete with clinical and human perspectives. “Unknown White Male” is a thoughtful document that gets at many of the core questions of the human condition. One wonders how long it will take Doug Bruce to use up his new start, how long it will take him to become precisely the person he once was or if he ever will be the same again.
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