Few things are as dishonest as those who seek to replace one religion with another, simply by couching that religion in less institutional terms. It’s not religion, then, but “spirituality,” or even worse “empowerment.” God is killed, or at least banished, only to be brought back under the guise of scientific inquiry, even though the goal is the same: self-improvement. What the #$*! Do We Know!?, then, is like a cross between a Norman Vincent Peale tome and the dribblings of that weird guy on the bus who smells vaguely of urine. It’s an endlessly bizarre rumination on quantum physics, as if channeled through a few of the more technobabbly episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. We hear several “experts” (all unidentified until the end, lest we feel like fools for listening to the so-called wisdom of a chiropractor and some New Age guru reincarnated as the Buddha), but the main thrust is a fictional “story” involving Marlee Matlin as an angst-ridden photographer. Of course, listening to these wackos alone wax poetic in front of desert landscapes and roaring fireplaces would have driven me from the theater within ten minutes, but the story was a truly ridiculous addition indeed, as it followed Matlin from basketball courts to Polish weddings, all in search of the very things these brilliant minds were discussing. Combine that with acid-trip graphics and literal representations of abstractions (such as peptides acting out the “Addicted to Love” music video), and you have a film that would easily fit into any category of propaganda, only it’s so absurd that I can’t imagine anyone actually falling for it. But as we live in a country that feeds an entire industry of self-help manuals, perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to understand this film’s appeal.
And it does have tremendous appeal, for it has been a staple at a local theater for over six months now. Even tonight, a lonely Sunday evening, there were at least twenty other patrons; many, I presume, who were seeing it for the second or third time. This is in fact a cult hit; a film that has built a following by word-of-mouth, with little to no advertising. I am instinctively skeptical of any film that makes money in this manner, for I can always envision followers — I mean, viewers — leaving the theater, pulling out their cell phones, and saying, “Ohmygod, I just saw this amazing movie….You simply must go!” Harmless words, perhaps, but usually followed by, “It will change your life!” Now, as much as I love the cinema and would rather interact with projected images than flesh-and-blood humans, I wouldn’t say that any movie has been a life-altering experience, as brilliant as many have been. I’ve been “inspired” to think differently, perhaps, so maybe what I’m saying here is that a phrase of such magnitude — that one leaves a movie with the intention of changing one’s course in life — usually coincides with receiving one’s marching orders. If a few hours in the dark is enough to motivate you to join a movement, then you can only be described as easily led; a passive sponge looking for the quick and dirty.
Science and pseudo-science aside (there is a little of each), the film fails miserably because of its style. These are lectures from a textbook, not cinematic devices. Much of this material is so complex and confusing (deliberately so, I believe) that it would require a quiet room to absorb the implications, not a flash and dash motion picture. And hey, while I was pleased by the focus on the brain as a way to dismantle organized religion, I saw that such knowledge was being used cynically, as no layman could ever be expected to fully understand these theories in such a rushed format. I say “cynically” because the mix of the valid and the speculative leaves the impression that one is witnessing a truly enlightened approach, and as such should be taken on faith. That’s right, “faith.” For what else could this be, as much of quantum theory remains unknown, and must be accepted without definitive proof. Sure, I’d rather talk about neurons and brain waves than “God’s power,” but the way these folks describe it, matter at the subatomic level is infused with an intelligence all its own, which is very nearly the same as a supreme being. The terms are different to be sure, but what these people are searching for is exactly the same as Muslims or Christians: meaning and purpose. Why am I here? How can I be a better human being? I’m not interested in any philosophy that has this decidedly childish goal, for true sanity (and maturity) comes from the acceptance that life is utterly meaningless. What it “means,” then, is as subjective as what one desires on their pizza. The minute you’ve accepted purpose, you’re well on the road to making distinctions — and judgments — and the labor camps are but a whisper away.
The film enters of the realm of the truly insipid when it argues that we can change the world with our thoughts. As evidence, the film offers up the dubious anecdote that several years ago, thousands of New Age freaks came to Washington D.C., meditated, and managed to reduce crime by 25% during the usually high-crime summer months. Now you’d think that scientists would understand that correlation is not causation, but there it is. It’s the peak of narcissism, which as we know is one of the central traits of all feel-good spirituality. New Age kooks may not have a bearded god-head, but they are never alone as they know that we are all connected in a neighborly web of action and interaction. With all the talk of “bad vibes,” one would think we were spending a weekend with the Maharishi Yogi. And as we know, that shit meant nothing without a healthy supply of mind-altering substances. In the light of sobriety, this sounds like what it is — bullshit, albeit bullshit tinged with a bit of science.
And what about the various pictures of water molecules that had been “altered” by thoughts, both good and bad? Pleasing ideas — like sweetness and love — transformed these molecules into beautiful images resembling snowflakes. The phrase “I hate you and want to kill you,” however, massacres the poor water drop and blasts it into ugliness. As Matlin observes these photos in a Portland subway, some dude stops her and says, “If our thoughts can do this to water molecules, imagine what they can do to us.” That must be some really good shit, bro. And the whole “good and bad” thing is a bit odd, considering that the movie claimed one could not make such judgments at least five different times.
But never doubt for a moment that these creepy folks have an agenda. Not as oppressive as Catholicism, perhaps, but one that wishes to take over the culture just the same. Let it be said, however: everything in this film is worth discussing, but in the end, it’s simply mental masturbation. Life, or at least ordered society, cannot be lived in such a manner, for I doubt the push of commerce could accommodate millions of folks engaged in simultaneous transcendental indulgence. And I’d rather not live in a world where everyone was “finding their center,” for in the end, such pursuits — still defined by their blinding self-centeredness — would lead us right back to the same place we currently inhabit. Only without the honesty about what it all actually was.