The 'Unknown' Truth
"There are no rules for documentaries anymore," says Rupert Murray, director of the unruly Unknown White Male. "Five years ago, when I was making [docs] at [Britain's] Channel Four, they said, 'Oh, you can't have backstory.' Well, [Unknown White Male] is all backstory. That whole vérité thing came out of the '60s; now there's a new generation of filmmakers who are pissed about people telling them what they can and can't do in a documentary. 'I can't? Fuck off.' It's an exciting time for documentaries."
It's also an exciting time for Murray. The buzz on Unknown White Male--about a friend of Murray's who developed a rare form of total amnesia at the age of 35--has put the director alongside his heroes in an upcoming panel discussion of whether strange-but-true stories are better served by docs or by fiction. This prestigious invite, believe it or not, comes right at the moment when the identity of Murray's own movie is being questioned. Director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) recently told GQ that he met Unknown's subject Doug Bruce and didn't believe a word of his tale. Roger Ebert has wondered in print why the documentarian reveals so little of his friend's colorful background. And Manohla Dargis's playfully skeptical review mentions Aki Kaurismäki's deadpan farce The Man Without a Past, mainly to offer an intriguing tidbit: that it "opened in New York two months before Mr. Bruce popped up in Coney Island wearing flip-flops and carrying no identification."
Murray, in Minneapolis on a well-timed PR tour (the film opens at Lagoon Cinema on Friday), says the brushfire of insinuation began as a mere spark at Sundance, where one viewer suggested during a Q&A that the film is just another Blair Witch project. "That was one guy at a screening," says Murray. "From there it becomes the quote-unquote controversy surrounding the film. I've been shocked and irritated [by the skepticism]--and now I'm pissed. Essentially people are calling me a fraud, a huckster who's selling a lie."
Evidence aside, the current culture of hoax (cf., James Frey, JT LeRoy, G.W. Bush) hasn't done much to diminish press speculation about Unknown's origins. So, too, what makes the movie striking by contemporary standards--that is, Murray's highly creative, often hallucinatory approximation of the world as seen by an amnesiac--doesn't translate as "documentary" to those of us trained on the usual mix of talking heads and scratchy newsreels. To put it another way: Unknown White Male--brilliantly shot on hi-def DV at a cost of nearly a million bucks--looks a little too good to be true. (As does Murray--the only white male documentarian on the planet who could maybe earn a living as a model.)
In any case, what seems indisputable is that the British-born Murray, a former painter and graphic artist, has reinvented the documentary form with a film that, real or not, is itself about the power of reinvention. Bruce, the man without a past, is seen to begin his life anew; Murray, as he says, is the "most successful I've ever been"; and the movie, albeit the final release from the corporate-capped Wellspring, is poised to make some kind of splash--if not necessarily the sort that its maker would prefer. Maybe some things, such as Unknown White Male, are better left unknown. I mean, when a story is this good, who should care whether it's true?
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