Judge Brendan Babish is afflicted with a mental condition that is perplexing modern scientists. Though his memory functions normally in his day-to-day life, he seems to have no ability to remember his wife's birthday.
Imagine if your entire memory were suddenly wiped away.
Unknown White Male is a curious, (allegedly) factual documentary of one Douglas Bruce, a 35-year-old retired New York stockbroker who woke up one morning on the B train headed to Coney Island. He couldn't remember how he got there; he couldn't remember who he was; he couldn't remember anything. After a brief stay in a mental hospital, a call to a random number on a scrap of paper in his backpack led to an acquaintance picking him up and taking him to his spacious Manhattan loft apartment.
Bruce suffers from an extraordinarily rare form of total retrograde amnesia. He remembers virtually nothing of his previous 35 years of existence. This means he cannot recognize friends and family members, doesn't remember birthday parties and vacations and cannot even recall tastes, sights or smells. In one of the film's more irreverent moments, a friend of Bruce's recounts him raving about a new band he had just heard. She asked him who they were and he exclaims, "The Rolling Stones!"
Unknown White Male chronicles the first two years of Bruce's life, post memory loss. Fortuitously for the film's director, Rupert Murray, Bruce, who had ambitions to be a professional photographer, recorded much of his actions immediately following the loss. This includes the return to his apartment and, most poignantly, his reconciliation with his family. In the film's most absurd moment (and there are several), Doug films his sister and father's reactions at the airport when they are, in a sense, introduced for the first time.
Unknown White Male is pretty much an amalgamation of moments like these. Bruce tastes chocolate mousse for the first time; he is overjoyed by his first snowfall; he flies to England to reunite with the friends he grew up with. But Unknown White Male does not merely chronicle Bruce's journey of self-discovery. With great assistance from the ponderous Bruce, Murray challenges the viewer to not only consider who he is, but who they are.
The central question is how much of our identity is derived from our experiences. Bruce's family and acquaintances unanimously attest that since "the forgetting," he seems like a different person. We hear that he used to be a cynical and aggressive stockbroker. After the incident, he appears quiet and introspective, attributes that occasionally lead to incompatibility with previously close friends. It makes one wonder, if our memories were wiped clean, who would we then be? Are our friends, whom we would then share no experiences with, still be our friends? Would our family still be our family, or would they now be strangers?
It is also through the prism of Bruce's condition that we are able to gain a newfound appreciation for ourselves, and for the world around us. After watching Unknown White Male one might listen to the Rolling Stones again, as if for the first time, and appreciate them anew. One might go to beach, as Bruce does, and marvel again at the majesty of the ocean. It is surprisingly easy to grow weary even in a world that offers so much stimuli, and, like most great art, Unknown White Male inspires us to see our lives a little differently. I think it goes without saying—while this film may create a mind meld even for sober viewers—the consequences could be catastrophic if it is watched under the influences of any mind-altering substances.
I should note that one issue wholly unexplored in the documentary is whether Bruce is faking his condition. Since its release there has been growing skepticism of Bruce's story. Murray, who knew Bruce before the amnesia, has angrily refuted any claims of fakery. Though the question of Bruce's veracity will confound many viewers, it did not bother me at all (and I do have my doubts). If he is faking, this film would probably become a curio on par with Cool as Ice, but as of now those who focus on catching Doug in inconsistencies (there were none that I could find) are going to miss one fascinating flick.
Wellspring Media has done a commendable job putting together a great DVD package for admirers of the film. Murray created a colorful, vibrant documentary and viewers will watch this transfer with wide eyes on their big screen TVs. There are also loads of extras to sift through. These include a featurette on the film's strong visuals, and several extended sequences of interview subjects discussing Bruce and his condition. Perhaps the extra that will arouse the most interest is the "Where is He Now?" featurette. While there are some brief snippets of updates, this is actually just a brief conversation between Rupert Murray and Bruce. And though it is billed as a "Q & A with the Director and Procuder," this special feature is actually just their strong defense of Bruce's and, by extension, the film's authenticity. For those who figure themselves amateur sleuths this may help assuage or further stoke your suspicions.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
• Visualizing Memory: Making of...
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