East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Unknown White Male: The spotless mind [movie note]

Starring Doug Bruce
Directed by Rupert Murray

The subject of this documentary stirs on a train near Coney Island, to discover he no longer remembers who he is. Terrified at first, the police and medical staff can't find any reason for his amnesia, but it's soon established that he's Doug Bruce, a 35-year old English ex-stockbroker turned photography student. Despite being unable to remember any of his past, or his friends and family, the blank-looking Doug adapts to his new situation with remarkable clarity, carrying his video camera on his shoulder when he meets his family for the first time. The nagging feeling that this can't possibly be true, that he's faking it, is a source of dissonance. But it seems probable Doug's affliction is genuine (psychosomatic? This possibility, the first that came to my mind, isn't raised by the film) and the dissonance strengthens the movie.

Director Rupert Murray, an old mate of Bruce's, takes us through the first two years after the memory loss. Murray's talent is expression, not explication: the lack of a probable cause doesn't concern him. And details of what Doug was like immediately preceding the incident are absent; Murray instead relies on mutual friends to sketch Doug's character during his London days. Some of his visual techniques, too, are coarse, like the use of distorting lenses as a metaphor for Doug's initial disorientation. Other times he gets it just right, as when editing Doug's footage of first encounters (with the ocean, with snow, with chocolate mousse) into a saturated Eden of rediscovery.

Murray opens by proposing to explore how much of us is the sum of our experiences and how much is the "real us". He doesn't really give us an answer: the consulted philosopher suggests he's the same man, but maybe not the same person, a statement that doesn't help much. Maybe it's just as well that he doesn't leap to conclusions, because while Doug has a clean slate, some things are still the same: he's an attractive, wealthy white man moving in circles that appreciate his sort. All the same, there is evidence that Doug has changed -- we see old footage of Doug larking about with his boys, and we see the new Doug is indifferent to it. His hijinks were undoubtedly fun at the time, but some men, when they hit thirty, want to move on, and if you don't have any memory of it, how can you relate? This is why the Eighties revival and other forms of premature nostalgia are worth resisting: they stop you from growing up. Maybe the leading fringe benefit of Doug's malady, more than the reinstatement of the novelty of experience, is that once he gets his bearings, he can get on with life.


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