The story hooks us from the start: A man, Caucasian, early thirties, suddenly finds himself on the New York subway. He has no idea how he got on the subway. He has no idea where the subway is taking him. And then he realizes that he has no idea who he is at all. He has no memory whatsoever before an early morning subway ride.
He spends his next few hours in a wide-eyed daze, first trying to learn as much as he can on his own (the train was headed to Coney Island, he discovered, but where is that?), then at a nearby hospital, hoping someone there can help him. With no luck (and no identification), he's administered to the psychiatric ward, a blank slate, terrified and alone.
As the day progresses, the mystery is cracked and his identity is revealed as Doug Bruce, a Londoner living in New York, a former stock broker now making a go as a photographer. An ex-girlfriend arrives to help, and then friends. Through it all, though, Doug remains locked in his state of retrograde amnesia - memories of his life before he awoke en route to Coney Island never return, and now Doug must begin his life anew.
Remarkably, all of this is a true story, as documented in "Unknown White Male." When Doug's friend Rupert Murray learned of Doug's condition, he decided to make a film chronicling Doug's return to the world, a return given a little boost in part by Murray, who helped arrange reunions with old friends. The film follows Doug for two years, watching closely as he readjusts himself, trying his best to become reacquainted with friends and family he does not recognize, eager to continue his life on his own terms, wondering how and when, if ever, memories of his "previous life" will ever return to him. (Doug does not mind the constant surveillance; both before and after the amnesia, he was a man with a camcorder always in hand. In fact, it's Doug who begins a video diary of the recovery process.)
What Murray has made here is one part personal journey, with Doug granted the gift to re-experience everything life has to offer for the first time, but at the cost of relationships that are now blank and meaningless to him; one part medical documentary, with a series of experts explaining the various forms of memory and memory loss, and how they relate not only to Doug (whose condition is never explained, the cause forever unknown) but to us all; and one part meditation on memory and how it affects who we are. It is obvious that Doug, his former self wiped away, is now a new person, slightly different than the Doug his friends once knew. How much of one's personality, then, is formed by experiences, how much by genes, and how much a combination of the two? With no recall of the things that filled up his life, how much of Doug is now different? And if memories were to return, what would that mean to this new Doug, who has grown quite comfortable in his second life?
Murray asks these questions quite lyrically, creating a lush, beautiful film along the way. Opting to avoid a series of talking head interviews and generic shots of his friend, Murray, who also served as editor, creates a collage of sights and sounds - old Super8 home movies mixed with random stock footage - that intends to not only tell us Doug's story, but to put us into his frame of mind. This is a documentary with a rhythm all its own, its hypnotic beat pushing us forward through Doug's frail state. (And, later, using a barrage of visuals to describe the glorious discovery of all the new things the world has to offer him.)
It's a daring move: too much and you end up with something too pretentious to work as a solid document. Yet Murray finds the right balance, allowing his imagery and his use of music and sound to captivate us and drive Doug's story forward without overshadowing the reasons for the film itself. "Unknown White Male" is a lovely, captivating work, both for its filmmaking skill and for the haunting tale at its core.
There has been some speculation going around as to the authenticity of Doug's story. Although this doesn't hurt the film at all; the questions raised by such controversy - about the convenience of how several scenes play out, about the potential for Murray's sudden re-involvement in Doug's life to border on exploitation, about the lack of evidence to support the film's claims - only go to make the movie more interesting than it already is. "Unknown White Male" brings up an array of remarkable ideas on identity and the mysteries of the human mind, asking so many questions, never getting around to the answers. Fiction or non, it works.
Considering the wide variety of source material here, the video quality ranges throughout from excellent to poor. With that in mind, the film looks as good as it's supposed to look. This is a fine transfer of a widely varied film. Presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen format, with anamorphic enhancement.
The Dolby 5.1 track is a bit excessive - does a documentary really need surround sound? And yet it works, clean and clear, with the rear speakers used for surprisingly solid effect. No alternate language tracks or subtitles are offered.
"Visualizing Memory: Making of Unknown White Male" (10:54) finds Murray defending his decision to go beyond the straight forward documentary style and explaining how he got all those funky shots that fill his movie. In lieu of a commentary track, this piece offers enough information to satisfy.
"Original Sand Dune Sequence" (4:49) is a longer take on the film's final meditative scene. Good stuff, although it's a bit overdone, making it easy to see why the shorter cut was eventually used.
"The Man Before Amnesia: Interview With Friends" (5:54) is exactly what it sounds like, a collection of outtakes with old friends offering up further reminiscences on Doug. Again, you can see why these were edited out.
"The Experts: Extended Interviews" (9:39) offers more complete sit-downs with the scientists and philosophers seen in the film. Downright fascinating, at least for those who like listening to such things. (Especially notable is Mary Warnock, who contemplates what might happen if/when Doug's two "lives" ever collide following a return of memory.)
"Where Is He Now?" (7:45) sits the subject and the director down for a friendly follow-up interview in which they tackle a few frequently asked questions (why make the film? why make it with Murray?) and discuss public response before finally bringing us up to speed on Doug's story (which amounts to nothing more than nope, still no memory, now let's move on).
"Questions with the Director and Producer" (5:47) is home video footage of a post-screening Q&A session (and, later, a one-on-one interview away from the crowd) that, finally, discusses the controversy about the film's potential hoax-ness - a topic which, oddly, Murray brings up before the audience does. It's a bit overly defensive (I'm reminded of the classic Martin Short "SNL" character nervously sweating out an "I'm not being defensive!"), and it fails to convince for either side, but at least they finally own up to the controversy.
The film's trailer and previews for a handful of other Wellspring releases round out the set.
All extras are presented in an anamorphic widescreen format, except for the Q&A (which is taken from standard 1.33:1 video) and the trailers (which are served up in a flat letterbox).
Genuine or hoax, Doug's story is endlessly fascinating, the sort of thing that leaves you thinking about it for days, wondering how such a thing could happen, and, of course, eventually wondering about your own life, your own memories. "Unknown White Male" asks so many excellent questions, and although it provides no real answers, it remains a noteworthy study of who we are and how we get to become that way. The solid supply of supplemental features is simply icing. Highly Recommended.