What the #$*! Do We Know!? is a bizarre hybrid — a talking-head documentary, an allegorical narrative, a lesson in quantum physics/New-Age mysticism (it doesn’t distinguish between the two and wishes we wouldn’t either) and a bad music video. In none of these arenas does it succeed — in fact, there are few scenes that aren’t asinine enough to elicit a laugh or a groan, sometimes both at once, which I had previously thought a physical impossibility. The overall tone is that of an indoctrination film for a cult, if such films were made by the people who make training videos for fast-food franchises.
The film is directed by William Arntz, Betsy Chasse, and Mark Vicente and written by Arntz, Chasse, and Matthew Hoffman. Remember those names. Someday it may save you some vigorous running.
The cast of talking heads isn’t identified by name or credentials until the end. The withholding of this vital information seems intended to make the viewer consider all viewpoints equally, though the speakers’ legitimacy as thinkers certainly varies, from Ph.D.s in physics and theology to an anesthesiologist and a highly dubious guru. Over the course of the film, less and less time is devoted to the observations of the legitimate scholars and increasingly the focus is on a plump middle-aged woman with a Mitteleuropean accent known only as Ramtha. And who is Ramtha? Perhaps she can best explain herself:
I am Ramtha the Enlightened One. I was known as Ram. I was the first conqueror this plane ever knew. I conquered three-quarters of your known world, entity. My march lasted for sixty-three years. I ascended on the northeast side of the Indus River in front of my complement of entities that was two million strong. My peoples now make up the populace of Indus, Tibet, Nepal, as it were indeed, and even that which is termed Southern Mongolia. My peoples are a mixture, as it were indeed, of Lemurians, of that which is termed Ionians — later to be that which is termed Macedonia — and that which is termed the tribespeople, that which is termed, as it were indeed, the tribal people of that which is termed Atlatia. My blood, entity, is in all of them.”*
And so on. This kind of hyperbole was amusing in the opening chapter of Myra Breckinridge, but coming from one who’d like us to rearrange our notion of reality, it’s a bit suspect. It’s particularly frustrating that this nincompoopery is liberally mixed with serious questions and suppositions based on quantum physics, a subject that, while perhaps not inherently cinematic, is at least interesting and worthy of examination. I doubt, though, that Werner Heisenberg ever intended his work as the basis for a self-help cult. Unfortunately, even the more level-headed folks (grading on a steep curve) tend to wander off from science into dubious metaphysics, their credulity so bottomless as to permit a view of scenic Shanghai. Their platitudes may be comforting to those suffering severe frontal-lobe damage, but anyone in full possession of his or her faculties is likely to find them facile and self-deluding. I found it interesting that they justify some of their beliefs by referencing paradigms that were universally accepted at one point but later disproved, yet there is no mention of crackpot ideas that were universally dismissed without ever having reached wide acceptance. Convenient, that.
Apart from the talking heads, we’re shown really bad CGI effects and the ugly death of Marlee Matlin’s career. The usually charming Ms. Matlin plays Amanda, the skeptical everywoman (and here, in spite of myself, I must give the filmmakers points for casting a deaf woman as the audience’s proxy without making an issue of it) who serves as the tortured protagonist of the allegorical scenes, forced to question and inevitably reject old premises of reality on her path to spiritual and scientific enlightenment. She suffers the indignity of, among other things, a gnomic child who quotes Morpheus from The Matrix and singing, dancing, flatulating human cells, computer-animated so as to look like particularly obnoxious friends of SpongeBob SquarePants. Toward the end of the second act, the narrative portion turns especially coarse and unpleasant. Hearing a Polack joke for the first time since elementary school certainly got my attention, but I don’t see how it furthers the filmmaker’s cause, nor do I understand the point of all the bathroom humor. Jesus and Buddha were able to start up some pretty popular belief systems without any of this vulgarity, while Andrew “Dice” Clay has few if any remaining adherents.
This movie drags on and on and on and on in a way that has forever changed my view of dental procedures. It’s common to complain that a film seemed like it was going to end several times before it did, but I swear I had packed my notes into my satchel three times before the credits rolled. By the actual end, the eyes of the latter-day mystics glow with a crazed, self-righteous fervor that I can attribute only to possession by beings much smarter and infinitely crueler than any human.
The sage Whitney Houston once observed that learning to love oneself is the greatest love of all, which, in the end, is the message we’re left with. (Why? Did I miss something? Where did the physics go?) And to think, she managed it in well under 111 minutes and without the use of any farting CGI cells.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
What the #$*! Do We Know!? / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()