Mossback is a cultural conservative. No, not the I-only-listen-to-music-approved-by-Tipper-Gore-and-go-to-movies-rated-godly-by-Michael-Medved type. But I view most public art with great suspicion and rarely go to foreign films that don’t feature swords.
From time to time, though, I weaken and am persuaded to leave the stump for something more mind-broadening and experimental. Most memorable was a performance at On the Boards a few years back that can only be described as “Canadian mime tango.” It’s hard to imagine three scarier words strung together, except maybe “big hairy tarantula.”
Last weekend, I was convinced by a blurb in our own listings to see a film called What the #$*! Do We Know?, which sounded like an interesting indie documentary-style film about quantum physics and the meaning of the universe featuring—oddly, I thought—the deaf Oscar winner, Marlee Matlin, who seemed a very unlikely figure to be explaining string theory, but what the heck. So our small group trundled up to the Crest Theater in Shoreline, where, back in the early ’70s, I used to go to 50-cent weekend double-feature pairings of movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s with Audrey Hepburn and Five Card Stud with Dean Martin. Talk about cosmic dissonance.
What the #$*! Do We Know? featured a mix of talking heads describing the amazing wonders of the goofy universe of subatomic particles, interspersed with the story of a Portland photographer, played by Matlin, who is chronically depressed but, with the help of a wise, Yoda-like boy, learns to become unstuck in time, shoot hoops, and create her own reality. This enables her to toss the Prozac and get on with a busy life of self-actualization.
A third dimension of the film is its heavy use of computer animation to make its points. This includes a long segment tracking the biological functions of Matlin and others as they attend a Polish wedding—hey, there’s the “shy” cell, the “sex” cell, and the “gluttony” cell. It was a like an old Disney-style film about the functions of the human body, Hemo the Magnificent, or Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, where we experience an orgasm from inside the body. Only here, everything was imbued with a kind of mystical, rather than salacious, significance.
What I realized as I watched the film is that it isn’t a documentary about science at all. In fact, it’s a propaganda film with—until the end—a literally hidden agenda. During the movie, I kept thinking that it reminded me of the clever multimedia films you see inside world’s fair pavilions. But who was the Honeywell or Monsanto here?
The presentation was very odd. The talking heads, for example, weren’t identified until the final credits, so you tended to listen somewhat credulously to what they were saying before you knew whether the speakers had any authority to be saying it at all. They mostly sounded like scientists, speaking about particle physics. (Matter is really an idea! Stuff can be two places at once!) But strangely, amid all the talking heads, they kept returning to someone who was familiar: JZ Knight, the New Age cult leader and Yelm resident who purports to channel a 35,000-year-old warrior entity named Ramtha.
Mossback’s partner whispered that Knight looked and talked like the love child of Zsa Zsa Gabor and William Shatner. She couldn’t maintain her Ramtha accent, either, and appeared to have had bad plastic surgery—one would think with her money and connections to Atlantis she could have done better. At any rate, I sat through the film wondering what the hell she was doing there. And who the heck were these other “experts” in the film, and how come quantum mechanics kept turning into quantum metaphysics? Turns out a few were legit scientists and academics, but others had credentials from august entities like a chiropractic school and Maharishi University, where they’re learning to stop crime through meditation. And one theologian turns out to have been a Catholic priest who left the church under a cloud of sex-abuse allegations. A number of those interviewed were connected with Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment, run by Knight.
When I got home, I checked the Web and discovered that many other filmgoers had felt conned by this “independent” film with a stealth agenda. Last September, Salon did a story about the film’s Ramtha connections, including its three principal filmmakers, who described themselves as “students of Ramtha,” who, they said, is “a being living outside our space/time.” Salon described the film as an “infomercial” for Ramtha. Our film listings certainly should have reflected, at the very least, that there was a controversial Knight connection to the film. I know that would have influenced my decision to go.
It wasn’t that I was offended by the film’s ideas. It’s old New Age thinking, spruced up with the gloss of scientific theory. What the #$*! Do We Know?, which one of its makers has described as “a film for the religious left,” should be up front about what it is. If it wants to credibly offer an alternative to the American Judeo-Christian model of religion, it should do so without a disguise. Of course, if it did that, it might turn some people off—which, of course, is exactly how cults work. They recruit by pretending to be something they’re not.
What the #$*! Do We Know? should come with a warning label. Not for what it tells us but for what it withholds.