Unknown White Male

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Unknown White Male

(Above: Doug Bruce)

This is not my beautiful house…

Director: Rupert Murray
Studio info: Wellspring Media, 88 mins.

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind suggested what happens when romantic memories are selectively erased: human nature rebels, reboots and repeats itself, like a daisy pushing through the concrete.

But what happens to Doug Bruce isn’t a comedy. And real life proves, as much as ever, far stranger than fiction—even Eternal Sunshine screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s fiction. Bruce is the suddenly isolated and anonymous title character of Unknown White Male, a bracing documentary that explores the double life of a downtown Manhattan fast-tracker derailed by a profound case of retrograde amnesia.

Bruce—a stockbroker turned photographer—wakes up one dawn on the F train as it pulls into Coney Island. He has no idea who he is. Mysteriously, all biographical memory has been wiped from his brain. Eventually rescued from a Brooklyn hospital by a new female acquaintance, he faces the astonishing prospect of rediscovering his identity. That old Talking Heads lyric—“This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife”—applies fully. He owns a spacious loft and has the comfort of attractive, sympathetic girlfriends. Since he’s also a camera buff, he immediately begins videotaping the ceaseless flow of revelations that constitute his new existence.

This is a boon for director Rupert Murray, who’s drawn into the story by his friendship with the “old” Doug—a handsome Englishman whose taste for adventure and biting tongue marked him the leader of his pack. Murray yearns to reconnect, and Bruce, who steadily embraces his new skin, agrees to the project. What’s shocking for Murray and everyone else in the sprawling circle of friends and family is that their bright, beloved buddy shares little of their interest in his former life or re-assimilating it.

Doug 2.0 is a sensitive, introspective artist type, a polar shift from the brash, dashing playboy who lights up photographs and archival footage that Murray edits into “this was your life” montages. Miraculously, he relearns two years of photography classes in a matter of weeks, and his work—intimate portraits of friends jarred by the new scenario—acquires raw, emotional depth. The melancholy in their eyes also suffuses much of the film, which shuffles images like mementos mori of someone not dead but no longer present. As Bruce builds new relationships with those—including a lovely Australian woman—who only know his post-amnesia persona, he encounters another twist: Doctors give him a 95-percent chance of regaining his memory. Ecstatic when introduced to the pleasures of the ocean or eating sushi for the “first” time, Bruce must now contemplate the ambiguous nature of who he once was, and who he may yet be. The metaphysical questions posed are certainly eternal, and anything but spotless.

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