Entertain Your Brain

This new docudrama is a real mind-bender

Sep 15, 2004 at 4:00 am
Brassbound skeptics may see the complex, provocative docudrama What the #$*! Do We Know!?, which poses the Big Questions of Life, as just another product of new-age self-absorption, an act of pompous navel-gazing that might best be confined to screenings at the local ashram. Certainly, these 108 minutes are singularly obsessed with large purpose and sublime enlightenment. But the film's Oregon-based collaborators, William Arntz, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente, are not after processed emotion or cheap wonderment. It looks amateurish in places and resolutely homemade throughout (despite some glitzy morphs and visual effects), but What the.... is nonetheless a serious inquiry, steeped in the mysteries of quantum physics, molecular biology and their deeper implications, into who we are, where we are going, why we bother with the trip and what might be available in the heightened-consciousness department to help us along.

In his engaging 1992 film A Brief History of Time, documentarian Errol Morris engaged the celebrated theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking as his guide to the cosmos, and we learned a thing or two about the origins of the universe, the concept of time and, quite possibly, the mind of God. For Arntz, Chasse and Vicente, one genius is not enough. What the... carpet-bombs us with enough erudition from assorted physicists, biologists and religious mystics that halfway through, viewers may have trouble distinguishing Being from Nothingness, even in adjacent petri dishes.

Did you know that your mind processes 400 billion bits of information per second but you're consciously aware of only 2,000 of them? Have you heard that matter itself is insubstantial, akin to thought or concept? Did you know that a Japanese scientist altered the molecular structure of water by reciting a Zen blessing over a lake, or that the brain is a sophisticated pharmacy that secretes a chemical for every emotion that's promptly shipped off to individual cell receptors? To illustrate this last, What the... provides a cartoon frolic of plump, candy-colored cells to show just how it happens. The cumulative effect is a bit like Mr. Wizard for grownups -- a high school science fair spiked with equal doses of Walt Disney and Deepak Chopra. In the end, the film's relentless assault of post-Einsteinian physics, state-of-the-art biochemistry and hipster perception analysis means to demonstrate the unity of humankind as we all grapple with the eternal mystery of being.

"All objects, all things," reports the Indian nuclear physicist Amit Goswami, "are possibilities of consciousness." And the divine resides in all of us. Don't tell that to Mel Gibson or George Bush, though. Their God gazes down from above and apparently doesn't trust earthly philosophers in white lab coats.

As the overburdened target of all these weighty (and semi-weighty) ideas, the filmmakers give us a dour art photographer named Amanda (Oscar winner Marlee Matlin), who's unlucky in love, unhappy in life and unfulfilled in wisdom. To relieve us from the scientific talking heads, I suppose, the filmmakers make their fictional heroine an educated Everywoman, an Amanda in Wonderland who must struggle through her trials toward enlightenment, assisted by the film's Greek chorus of PhDs, a visionary boy on a basketball court (Robert Bailey Jr.) and a cruelly drawn, ditzy blond roommate (Elaine Hendrix) who lacks the film's highest ideal -- the rapture of contemplation.

"The brain, when it fires its thoughts, is a boiling thundercloud," advises the noted pharmacologist Candace Pert, who follows that intriguing image with authoritative disquisitions on the origins of lust and the consciousness of individual cells. Meanwhile, the reluctant Amanda is sent by her boss to photograph, of all things, a Polish wedding. There, against all the odds, her tortured soul is uplifted and advanced by her encounters with the foolish guests. Primary director Arntz, who chucked his multimillion-dollar career as a software designer for aircraft companies to become a Buddhist (now, there's a shift of consciousness), hopes to insert a humorous note here, but this film is far more comfortable with things cosmic than things comic. The clunky jokes and wooden dialogue we must endure in the process don't exactly turn our brains into boiling thunderclouds, and Amanda's interior seems a lot less interesting than, say, the crazy, roiling mind we encountered amid the surreal gymnastics of Being John Malkovich.

Still, you needn't be a blissed-out new-ager or a harried research scientist at Johns Hopkins to get a very large intellectual kick and a nice jolt of emotion out of What the #$*! Do We Know!? Whether the "#$*!" of the title translates as "heck" or some other Anglo-Saxon expletive is a matter of personal preference, just as heightened perception is a matter of self-realization and the choice between Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez is likely made in the realm of metaphysics. In any event, bring your eager hypothalamus and your tuned-up frontal lobes with you. They'll get a workout.