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

by Kristen Kidder

23 September 2004



Are you a cultural creative? If you’re a pacifist and interested in the environment, you just might qualify. Studies conducted by Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson indicate that over 50 million people in the U.S. might be described as such. Cultural creatives share a worldview shaped by the social movements of the 1960s, following developments in thinking about consciousness, spirituality, and alternative healing.

What the #$*! Do We Know?, directed by William Arntx, Betsy Chasse, and Mark Vincente, is the first movie catering to this niche market, what the makers call “spiritual cinema.” The film is unlike any other now in theaters, part documentary, part dramatic narrative, and part instructional animation, though it feels more like a commercial for Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard. Appealing simultaneously to believers and potential converts, it asks “How far down the rabbit-hole do you want to go?”

cover art

What the #$*! Do We Know?

Director: William Arntx, Betsy Chasse, Mark Vincente
Cast: Marlee Matlin, Barry Newman, Elaine Hendrix

(Roadside Attractions)
US theatrical: 27 Feb 2004 (Limited release)

Probably not very, unless you have an advanced scientific degree. What the #$*! Do We Know? makes frequent references to quantum physics, though trying to make the concepts accessible to the layperson. Interviews with 14 “scientists and mystics” introduce theories about the power of thought and perception. However, the names and backgrounds of these experts are not revealed until the film’s closing credits (including the mystic Ramtha, “channelled by JZ Knight”). At times, this makes it difficult to take anything they’re saying seriously; they’re talking heads without context.

The film demonstrates their theories (say, Ramtha’s idea that “You cannot see anything that you do not first contemplate as a reality”) through a fictional protagonist, Amanda (Marlee Matlin), a hearing impaired photographer grappling day-to-day with uncertainty and loss. Her story intercut with the expert testimonies, Amanda serves as a bridge between theory and practice of quantum physics. Her sense of alienation and fragmentation (the cause of her angst is not immediately clear) ground a sort of “quest” structure, as the film follows her efforts to think about her existence differently.

The choice of a female lead was deliberate, according to What the #$*!?‘s website, as “universal truths” are too often rendered through men’s experiences. While undoubtedly well-intentioned, this choice is also suspect, given the film’s apparent “recruitment”: Ray and Anderson say that 60% of cultural creatives are women. That said, Amanda isn’t exactly a poster girl for spiritual strength. Her social paralysis is derived from the memory of her husband’s infidelity—a moment that has colored every aspect of her personal and professional life (she turns down photography jobs that would put her face-to-face with her past).

The film submits that most people live in similar emotional distress, being reactive rather than proactive, never discovering what would make them happy. The film proposes salvation: it’s all in the mind. One man with some reported experience in this area is Dr. Masaru Emoto, a scientist/evangelist who studies the reaction of ordinary bottles of water when they are exposed to written messages of affirmation or disgust. Dr. Emoto writes these words or phrases onto the containers, and then photographs the crystals that form after the water freezes. Water that receives “positive” messages produces “happy, beautiful” crystals, whereas the “negative” water ends up looking like dark tangles. Since our bodies are primarily comprised of water, Dr. Emoto hypothesizes, negative thoughts must have negative effects on our own body chemistry.

What the #$*! Do We Know? is many different things at once. It shows how little we do know, in order to urge greater curiosity and self-love, and suggest that people’s thoughts can affect the world around them. While this thinking seems uplifting and generous, the film might also be seen as a slick marketing tool, capitalizing on current anxieties and despair, literalizing what other films (The Matrix, Minority Report) made into fiction. That’s unlikely to sit well with the water crystals.

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