Unknown white male

Unknown white male

Douglas Bruce finds himself one day riding the subway in New York without knowing where he is going. In fact, he doesn’t know where he is, he doesn’t recognize any of the buildings. Panic sets in once he realizes he doesn’t know where he took the train, or even his own name. Doug suffers total amnesia, a rare condition in which one forgets everything about one’s life. Well, this is not exactly true: He knows how to talk, and when in the hospital someone asks him to sign, he remembers his signature. This strange and fascinating condition is explored in this documentary that uses footage shot by Doug himself and directed by his (former) friend Rupert Murray.

I found the documentary quite interesting, but I also found it wanting in several respects. Part of it may be due to the simple fact that we still know very little about how memory works, so surprisingly little time is devoted to hard data, to what may be happening—as for why it is happening, nobody knows. Some hypotheses are mentioned, and as the story progresses we get some clues. But part of the problem with the story I think is due to what I perceive as a shortcoming of the director: There are questions that do not get asked, some that beg to be asked, and why they are not seems to be because everybody is so fascinated by what is happening that they assume that filming it is enough. Part of it I think is due to the friendship between Doug and Mr. Murray. Mr. Murray seems to go out of his way to make Doug feel comfortable, while obviously the subject matter may make him uncomfortable. So, at the end of the day, I find the final product a bit awkward. There are a few extras in the DVD that leave me feeling the same (at least there is consistency); I missed (being in Vienna) the controversy on the veracity of the story, so the short section addressing it didn’t mean much to me. There is a long section explaining how a sequence was shot. I found it very curious that the director put so much thought into the visual look of the final product instead of trying to add a bit more substance to it.

I like explorations of memory, and mental problems intrigue me to no end. So this was a good movie overall. It complements well other documentaries in similar subjects, like anterograde amnesia, the disease that Memento popularized. I had the fortune of watching in 2004 an excellent documentary by Koreeda Hirokazu about one such case in Japan, Without memory.

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