Unknown White Male(Wellspring, 9.5.2006)
Unknown White Male opens with a beginning that could have launched any number of noirs. A man wakes up at dawn on the New York subway with bumps on his head, unidentifiable medication, a British accent, a mysterious woman's phone number, and, most importantly, no idea of who he is. Yet, while amnesia is often just the surface MacGuffin through which a noir plot sprouts, the question of what it actually means to lose one's memory in whole or in part has remained largely unanswered on the silver screen, with the exception of sci-fi-flecked flicks like Dark City and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Unknown White Male -- a documentary about a British expatriate who lost his memory -- attempts to fill that void, but ends up being an unsatisfying hodgepodge of science lecture, showy filmmaking, and new age philosophizing.
On July 3rd, a 35-year-old Brit wakes up at Coney Island with no idea of who he is or what he's doing there. After some phone calls, it's determined that he's Doug Bruce, a hugely successful ex-stock broker who segued into some classes in his true passion: photography. Luckily, this means that he likes to film every significant event that then unfurls and his friend, director Rupert Murray, shoots even more and has plenty of footage of Bruce before his memory was erased. What follows, then, is essentially two films.
One film features plenty of medical experts clinically dismissing Bruce's bumps and pituitary tumor as causes of his malady and delineating between different forms of amnesia. The other film shows Bruce adjusting to his new life and meeting old friends and family, who -- along with Murray's footage -- reveal that Bruce has morphed from a bit of a sardonic prick into an earnest and enthusiastic neophyte.
With all these ingredients, this doc should be compelling, but first-time director Murray sabotages it by not trusting the quality of his material. Instead of asking probing questions to Bruce about how he's adapting to his condition, Murray contributes a running commentary of glib new agey presumptions. And to make us feel Bruce's disorientation, Murray saturates the film with distorted fish-eye lens shots and trite montages drenched with Enya-esque tunes. These scenes discomfitingly clash with the sterile expert interviews so that the 88-minute doc never hits its groove and is only interesting in fits and starts.
Unknown White Male is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. The longest special feature is the 11-minute making-of featurette "Visualizing Memory," which, regrettably, is not a respite from either the New Age tunes or philosophizing. There are also marginally interesting extended interviews with experts and friends, an extended scene, a brief "Where is He Now" featurette (showing that Bruce has not regained his memory), and a Q&A session with Murray and a producer defending Bruce against allegations that he's faking his amnesia. -- Colin Miller