Thursday, April 13, 2006

Unknown White Male

I like the idea of identity as a malleable thing, at least as a story device. If it were to appear in my personal life, it would disturb me greatly. It's a theme I play with a lot in Transplated Life: We tend to think of our self as an atomic thing, changing shape over time, but not something breakable by outside forces. We really want to think of our brain as an interface device which our soul uses to interact with the physical world.

That's probably not the case, or if it is, it seems likely that souls are plain, generic things. Drinking will change "who we are", temporarily, as will any number of psychoactive drugs. Surgery can do it more permanently. And then there are cases like Doug Bruce in Unknown White Male, where something causes him to lose his memory, leading to personality changes subtle and gross.

The idea of that really terrifies me. I may be able to articulate the concept that I, as a human being, respond to my environment because of rules based on imperfectly recorded experiences, but I don't like it. But that's the sort of thing this movie makes you confront, that who you are can be changed by external factors - and that afterward, you'd think of that new version of yourself as normal, because you really don't have any other frame of reference.

I don't know about you, but that sort of idea can keep me awake at night.

Unknown White Male

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2006 at Landmark Kendall Square #8 (First-run)

Total amnesia shows up in the movies much more than it does in real life, for which we should be immensely grateful. After all, something which is a source of compelling drama is almost by definition something we don't want happening to us. And while amnesia is a fantastic set-up for a story of mystery and suspense, a backstory is not a requirement for the disease. That doesn't necessarily make it a less interesting subject; in fact, stripped of a plot, that type of memory loss allows one to really investigate the concept of identity.

There's no dramatic reason for Douglas Bruce's memory loss. The story begins with him coming out of a fugue state on a train to Coney Island; he doesn't realize that he's lost his memory until somebody his name. Not knowing, he turns to the police and eventually a hospital, who call the phone number on a piece of paper in his pocket (he is carrying no ID). The woman who answers doesn't know him, but her daughter does. He eventually finds out where he lives, that he used to be a stockbroker but retired young and now studies photography. He's got a father living in Spain, two sisters, and an ex-girlfriend who shares his apartment when she's not travelling. He's also got a tiny tumor on his pituitary gland, but it seems unlikely to be the cause of his problem.

Read the rest at HBS.

No comments: