What the #$*! is this movie really all about?
Quantum theory is hardly the stuff of which mass entertainment is made. The foundation of the field – very simply put, so as not to tax you or me – is that matter, made of tiny bits of shifting, interacting energy, is fluid rather than static. The theory, developed over the last 100 years or so, has opened up debate about a slew of tangential but vital questions, seemingly unrelated to the study of physics – little dilemmas like who are we, what are we capable of, how do we interact with the world. “What the #$*! Do We Know?!” boldly treads where few movies have before in surveying the landscape of quantum theory and its philosophical and existential corollaries. Perhaps fortunately, the film – directed by the trio of William Arntz, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente – doesn’t endeavor to be a straightforward educational session about quantum theory. Instead, apropos to the subject, “What the #$*! Do We Know?!” is a fluid, unpredictable collision of storytelling techniques and visual devices. The result of this intertwining of story, documentary and far-out animation is a disorientation of the normal state of the mind – in other words, the ideal state in which to receive this movie.In the film’s oft-interrupted but essentially linear narrative, Marlee Matlin plays Amanda, a high-strung photographer struggling with her art, her bubble-headed roommate and the pain left by her cheating ex-husband. Not much is made of Amanda’s being deaf, but it adds yet another layer of altered state to the experience.Amanda’s quandaries are highlighted by scientists and thinkers offering their quantum-oriented views on the world. These talking heads don’t comment directly on Amanda’s story, but speak in dizzyingly abstract terms about the issues she faces. Topping their list is the realm of knowledge and experience: How do we know what we know? Is life experienced outside of ourselves – or is all the world a product of our phenomenally complex brains?With this Greek chorus tearing open the fabric of the physical world, Amanda tumbles into the rabbit hole. Passing by a downtown basketball court, she is lured into a game of surreal one-on-one with a young boy. As the basketball does tricks even Bob Cousy couldn’t have imagined, the young hoopster challenges Amanda to confront the rules of existence: “How far do you want to go?” he asks.The pivotal scene in Amanda’s story takes place at a wedding she is assigned to shoot, an assignment she reluctantly accepts. With her sense of reality unhinged, Amanda sees things that aren’t there, witnesses incidents that never happened. They are products of her creation, based on her past and her thoughts.The quantum theory experts ponder several areas of life, including God and religion, and the relationship between the self and the world. (Uncomfortably shoved into the conversation is an interlude about addiction. A scene where Amanda stares meaningfully at her bottle of antidepressants before tossing them away reeks of TV-movie melodrama.)If there is a message meant to be taken from the intriguing but uneven “What the #$*! Do We Know?!” it is one of individual responsibility. If, as the experts propose, reality is created by our thoughts, then the only reason to suffer is if we choose to do so. Think better thoughts, they say, and experience a better reality.”What the #$*! Do We Know?!” is not a strong enough work to convince me of any of this. Despite the impressive credentials of the scientists, too much of it comes off as simple-minded New Age hokum. In the realm of films meant to open up philosophical inquiry, it doesn’t come near Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life.” But raising these issues is in itself a significant step; as one expert observes, not thinking about these things would do away with most of the meaning of his life.And I’ll say this: The night I watched the film, I did have some very odd dreams. Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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