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Monday, February 13, 2006


ModFab On...Unknown White Male

Starring: Douglas Bruce, the Bruce Family, and friends
Directed and Edited by Rupert Murray
Rated: PG-13 for drug references and brief strong language
Running Time: 88 minutes

On July 2nd, 2003, Douglas Bruce, a successful thirtysomething former stockbroker in New York City, disappeared. From the world. No one knows what happened to him, including himself. The next day, he found himself, dazed and alone in Coney Island, with no idea who he was or how he got there. Bruce was a victim of retrograde amnesia, one of the condition’s rarest forms that wipes clean all prior events in a person’s life. After hospital and police workers track down a former girlfriend through a phone number written on paper in his bag, Bruce begins a terrifying journey to re-learn everything, starting with his name. Unknown White Male is the tenderly disturbing documentary that follows his path back to humanity.

Or at least, it wants to. Director Rupert Murray, a longtime friend of Bruce’s prior to the amnesia, suffers under a cloud of nostalgia and emotionality that turns his investigation into a fuzzy meditation on existence and memory. Murray’s pet theories about what caused Bruce’s condition (reactions to his mother’s death, a ruptured pituitary gland) bog the narrative down and waste the energy culled from the more visceral experiences. When the film follows the man and his adjustment to reality – meeting his sister, watching old movies of his forgotten college years, the realization that his former life doesn’t seem all that appetizing – Unknown White Male pops into geek-science fizziness.

Sadly, those moments don’t occur often enough. The film – which includes shaky home video that Bruce began to take soon after returning to his former apartment – feels like an odd combination of Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation and Christopher Nolan’s Memento, but without the urgency of either film. There is a terror in such loneliness, an excommunication from human memory that begs for insightful analysis…something Murray avoids in favor of spinning camera tricks and odd establishing shots. The “new” Bruce is a rich subject in himself, a budding photographer who takes portraits of isolated women and references Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. But most of that is quickly dispensed with, replaced by endless slo-mo shots of home video, pre-insomnia Bruce, and drinking with his mates (that, presumably, included the director). Ultimately, there’s a methodical logic to the film’s exploration, which creates a plodding dullity that Bruce neither warrants nor deserves.

Bruce, at one point late in the movie, makes an observation; if everything your experience is new for the first time, there is no cliché. The tug of familiarity, felt so palpably by the filmmaker himself, is directly at odds with this revelation. Unknown White Male has all the elements for a striking documentary, but the film never makes peace with its subject, or his frightening, thrilling, extraordinary present.


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