Unknown White MaleReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/09/06 23:53:31
No doubt in response to the fallout resulting from the recent revelations about authors James Frey and J.T. Leroy, the new documentary “Unknown White Male” has inspired no small amount of controversy because of accusations by some, citing the lack of corroborating evidence, that the entire film is an elaborate hoax. To these eyes, a more pressing problem with the film, whether it is real or not, is that it has a potentially fascinating subject at its core but it never seems particularly interested in it. In other words, if the film is genuine, then it is a disappointing documentary that thoroughly squanders an intriguing premise but if it is a fake, then it is a meticulous recreation of a disappointing documentary that thoroughly squanders an intriguing premise. From a conceptual standpoint, I suppose the latter would be more interesting from a conceptual view, though certainly not interesting enough to make it worth watching.By now, you have no doubt heard about the subject of the film. On July 3rd, 2003, a man woke up on the subway heading for Coney Island with absolutely no idea of who he was, what he was doing or how he got there in the first place. He turned himself into the police and was sent to a psychiatric hospital until he was able to contact someone through information found in his belongings who recognized him as 37-year-old Doug Bruce. Despite this, he was still unable to recall anything about his life up to the moment he came to on that train–family, friends and his entire personal history just completely disappeared and left him a literal clean slate. Nevertheless, he had the fortitude to begin shooting video of his re-emergence into the world a week after his discovery and a friend, Rupert Murray, began to follow him around as well and eventually put this film together as a chronicle of Doug’s strange odyssey.
What he uncovers (and doesn’t uncover) I will leave for you to discover. However, the chief problem with the film is that it just seems to assume that this total memory wipe is a blessing that has allowed a grown man to re-experience the simple joys of life with the unsullied mind of a child. That may be true but I would like to think that if I were suddenly lose all of my memories, I would be equally angry and depressed at such a monumental loss (though there would be jubilation at having the memory of seeing “Ice Castles” erased for good) and I would also like to think that some of my friends and loved ones would also be at least slightly dismayed that all memories that we have shared together have also disappeared. That seemingly obvious sense of loss and despair never comes through here–all of his friends and family remark about what a wonderful person he is now without ever giving us a real sense of who he was and even Bruce seems remarkably uninterested to try to discover the person that he once was. Therefore, either Doug Bruce wasn’t much of a person before his ordeal or there never was a Doug Bruce in the first place.
Do I think that “Unknown White Male” is a load of horse manure. I can’t say for certain but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the film may not be entirely on the up-and-up. For starters, there are too many instances where the filmmakers have convenient explanations for certain inconsistencies. (At one point, Doug goes to visit his father for several days and carefully explains that his father inexplicably decided to wear the exact same shirt every day, which is why he is wearing the same thing in the interview footage.) We see interviews with many people, including doctors and policemen, but the vast majority of them are identified by either their first or last name, never both (this even extends to documents that we are shown). And while we hear a doctor seemingly discussing Doug’s medical condition, a careful listen will reveal that he is merely speaking in general terms on the subject and is not offering any actual diagnosis of Doug. (There is only one actual medical visit that we see and it is regarding an unrelated subject.)A good documentary, or at least a skillfully made fake, would have been able to tell its story in such a way that such questions would not be asked, or at least no asked until long after the end of the film. The problem with “Unknown White Male” is that it isn’t believable enough to work as fact and it isn’t interesting enough to work as fiction. Frankly, for all the huffing and puffing that it has inspired from some (which should earn it a much higher box-office gross that a film of its type might have otherwise earned), the end result comes of as little more than a low-rent rehash of the not-exactly-inspired “Regarding Henry.”
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