What the #$*! Do We Know? (2004)

This is a guest review generously contributed by Mike Hertenstein.

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What the #$*! Do We Know? aims to blow your mind: a worthy goal, and one that should surely be in some way the goal of any film: to expand our vision, our sense of the world, our possibilities – as C. S. Lewis says, to help us see with other eyes and so “enlarge our being.” The jumping-off place here is the admittedly mind-blowing world of cutting-edge science: mostly subatomic physics and biochemistry at the mind-body frontier. But it’s not just an educational film: the filmmakers share a common sense that the way most of us have been looking at the world for a long time is no longer working, that human beings everywhere are seeking some kind of breakthrough to a new way of seeing. So far so good, and off we go – at light speed: zipping on CGI roller-coasters through micro and macro universes, all cut with self-consciously “contemplative” sequences like fast-motion traffic and slow-motion water drops, a nominal narrative, and talking head interviews.

The narrative stars Marlee Martin as a photographer with nagging personal issues who seeks understanding and inner peace. The fact the actress is deaf (recall her signature role 1986′s Children of a Lesser God) makes the effort to understand and communicate somewhat more compelling, though we never forget this sporadic little drama is staged to illustrate the points made in the documentary portions. The interviews feature experts in a variety of fields – psychologists, physicists, theologians – all energetic and upbeat, and a bit urgent: the effect at times is of a feature-length infomercial.

What the Bleep Do We Know? (as the title is sometimes given, though I’ve actually also seen it rendered What the F***…), makes much of what is known as “Quantum Physics.” Before we consider whether the film makes too much of Quantum Physics, let’s pause and consider what that phrase means. Indeed, for all the attention here on Quantum Physics, the sheer number of times the words “Quantum Physics” are invoked like a magical formula, the film doesn’t do a very good job sketching the landscape wherein discussion of Quantum Physics might most profitably occur. Not like we’ll be able to do the concept much justice here. But the very short version is this: subatomic particles manifest bizarrely paradoxical and unpredictable behavior as compared to the world of larger bodies, the world explained by “Classical” or “Newtonian” physics.

Furthermore, and most-pertinent to this film’s commitment to paradigm-busting, there’s the undeniable fact that Classical Physics dominated – even came to characterize – the previous and increasingly passé era, or Modernity. Classical Physics created both a solid foundation for the Scientific Revolution, but also (as not a few have felt over the years) a deterministic cage for the human spirit. Over the past century, the news that reality is actually much stranger than Isaac Newton ever dreamed has been received like an emergency canister of oxygen among those who’ve felt trapped and suffocated by the deterministic laws of his so-called “clockwork” universe. But for those accustomed to a reality that “makes sense,” the whacked-out world of Quantum Physics is indeed a trip down the rabbit hole, which is where this film keeps telling us we’re going.

Now, going “post” modernity is a project I have a good deal of sympathy for, and I find myself as a rule more interested in what I think is right with New Age thinking than what others think is wrong with it. At the same time, I’m well aware that into that quantum rabbit hole have jumped all manner of folk – muscling past armies of awe-struck physicists and lay people like me: multitudes of philosophers, theologians, mystics and hucksters have been busy for some time trying to leverage the unknowns of the Quantum World to sell all manner of causes and products. Indeed, amid the relatively dry deserts of scientific inquiry has sprung up a veritable Vegas of New Age lounge acts, powering their metaphysical strip with the reflected glow of hard science.

(For some reason I find myself suddenly thinking of King Arthur’s question in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “This new learning amazes me, Sir Bedevere. Explain again how sheep’s bladders may be employed to prevent earthquakes…” “Of course, my liege…”)

When it comes to Quantum Physics, What the #$*! breezes past any careful context-framing and hits the ground running, grabbing key concepts and rattling off bizarre phenomena in a frantic race to make quantum leaps to particular metaphysical conclusions. The filmmakers keep lots of balls in the air and aspire to the impression that it’s all a matter of hard science. As I tried to keep my eye on the balls, I was reminded of Michael Moore and his Saudis. Hey, I’m one of those people who thinks something fishy IS going on with the Saudis. But I also think I might need a few more puzzle pieces before I care to make a guess as to what it is. Likewise, with Quantum Mechanics. Yes, the subatomic world is as weird as Wonderland, but to use that as quasi-scientific evidence that there is no god, that there is no good or evil, that we create reality with our consciousness – let’s just say the effort to sneak in metaphysical conclusions with physical facts was tripped up by some residual logic I’ve managed to bring with me into the new paradigm.

The talking heads in Bleep are unidentified until the close credits, and when we learn who they are we realize the spectrum of expertise runs from the more mainstream alternative medicine (if that’s not an oxymoron) to “Ramtha,” the 35,000 year old warrior-spirit channeled by one J. Z. Knight. Among the former group is Candace Pert, a neuroscientist at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, who makes some fascinating points about the connection between thinking and feeling that clearly have implications for both our mental and physical health – a sort of “reality creation” which seems a promising direction for those who seeking inner peace.

At least one of the film’s roster of more mainstream experts has, since the film’s release, let it be known his comments were taken out of context. According to a recent article in Salon.com Columbia University physics professor David Albert says he’s currently preparing a response to the film, which he says edited his interview to make it appear he was supporting views he does not.

Indeed, judging from Salon’s devastating expose, the figure at the center of the film’s creation is J. Z. Knight, quite possibly the New Age’s answer to Tammy Faye Baker, heads the “Ramtha School of Enlightenment,” one of the more gaudy and successful palaces on the New Age Vegas strip. A fount of books, tapes, and seminars, the Ramtha school preaches pretty much the message of this film – consciousness creates reality, we’re all of us gods, etc. Funding for the $5 million Bleep, reports Salon, came from co-director William Arntz, whose software program AutoSys made him a fortune in the mid-1990s. (Arntz has a history of strange New Agey connections, Salon adds, citing a 1999 Wired magazine article on the original funder of AutoSys, who claimed to have taught meditation in Atlantis and died under mysterious circumstances.)

Religious critics have already been savaging the film as a New Age Trojan Horse. Certainly, it does seem extremely interesting that a film that was devoted to urging viewers to create their own reality in their preferred image should suddenly flip-flop and become dogmatic about the objective reality of God. Or, more precisely, of asserting that God is nothing like he’s been presented by the Christian faith. No doubt, it’s pretty easy to be sympathetic to the ongoing project of disentangling the Christian faith from Modernity. But it also seems comically hypocritical that Ramtha should remark on how it was “the height of arrogance” to create God in one’s own image, even as she (or he? J. Z. Knight is a woman, but I forget Ramtha’s gender.) was doing just that.

Despite any hopes the film’s producers might have for provoking a Passion-like controversy, my guess is that What the Bleep will pass through the culture without leaving much of a ripple. Of course, the film does tell the story of how the first Native Americans to meet Columbus couldn’t at first see his ships on the horizon, because they had absolutely no pre-existing categories by which to process such a vista. (True, this anecdote is presented more as a fact than a myth in the film, but we’ll let that go.) It was only after the village shaman saw the ripples and announced that the ships were actually there, could the people finally see them. Obviously,Bleep wants to work the same way, pointing out realities so unprecedented that the rest of us haven’t yet been able to take them in. And it’s probably true that many people still haven’t yet been able to place the mind-boggling revelations about the subatomic world on their map of reality. This film may, in fact, be the first time a lot of viewers have ever heard of Quantum Physics.

But despite the peppy pressure to see what everybody else is missing, I think most viewers know enough to keep in mind that other story about seeing the invisible, the one with the naked emperor. Indeed, I doubt most audiences will swallow everything in this film whole, neither quantum fact nor New Age fancy. What some may end up doing is writing off the quantum facts, and that would be too bad. For the facts of quantum mechanics really are amazing. A good faith presentation of those facts – without any particular New Age agenda – would have succeeded in achieving at least one of the filmmakers’ goals: blowing the viewers minds. Even some speculations at the metaphysical edge by an open-minded physicist like Paul Davies wouldn’t have been out of place, as long as they were presented as questions and guesses rather than as answers.

But What the Bleep Do We Know only tries to break viewers out of one box so they can be put into another, an obvious maneuver that tends to short-circuit any would-be mind-blowing. Part Waking Life, part I Am Joe’s Neural Network, part Est Seminar, this often-entertaining film offers lots of great questions and some true facts, but all woven together with a fair amount of horse bleep.
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Mike Hertenstein gives this film 1 star out of 5 (for some cool animation).

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