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August 03, 2005

What the Bleep Do We (K)now?

William Arntz, Betsy Chasse, Mark Vicente - 2004
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

First, some brief information about myself. I am a Buddhist, and have been for over thirty years. More specifically, what I practice is Nichiren Buddhism. This is the practice that includes the repetition of the phrase Nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo, and the belief in simultaneous cause and effect as symbolized by the lotus flower. I took the time to see What the Bleep because several fellow Buddhists love this film. I even know one person who has seen it several times.

Here is where I get in trouble with some people: As a Buddhist, I can understand why this film is popular among some of my friends, and why this film has become something of a grass roots hit. But the film historian and critic in me has to also acknowledge that a film one agrees with philosophically is not always a good film. If that were true, Stanley Kramer would the great American filmmaker.

The film tries to convey quite a few thoughts, mostly concerned with quantum physics. At the most basic level, the various talking heads, most with science backgrounds, explain how our thoughts influence our interaction with the world. One of the scientists explains how people are one with the universe. All well and good, no arguments from me here. Where What the Bleep stumbles is in the choices the filmmakers have made in the assembly and presentation of these ideas.

Perhaps the intention was to not have the viewer prejudge the speaker, but we never know who those talking heads are until the end of the movie. I can understand that point of view in the case of the person who is channelling a 35,000 year old mystic named Ramtha. When I don't know who the scientist or physician is on screen, I have to wonder who I am listening to and why? Some of the computer generated illustrations are helpful for showing how neurons and atoms theoretically work.

Where the film is wrongheaded is in its narrative presentation of the ideas in action. Marlee Martin portrays a photographer having a very bad day. Her interaction with her boss, her room mate, and participants at a wedding are coupled with computer generated graphics to help explain how Martin influences her world with her particular emotional baggage. Some of the concepts that What the Bleep purports to explain have been portrayed in other, much better films.

To show cause and effect, Run, Lola, Run repeats the same story three times. The first two times, Lola actions bring about tragedy, while the third time shows that things can change with a little politeness and accomodation to others. Robert Bresson's last film, L'Argent does a masterful job of explaining through the actions of the characters, the ripple effect of one person and the unintended consequences upon others. The interconnectedness of people has been handled in interesting ways particulary by Robert Altman and Guy Ritchie.

It may be somewhat simple and simple minded, but to show the idea of oneness with the universe, I love the final scene from The Incredible Shrinking Man. After continually getting smaller, and battling a spider, Grant Williams, in voice over narration, accepts the fact that he is going to keep on shrinking beyond human comprehension. The camera shot is his point of view, looking up a the sky, while blades of grass tower around him. Thanks to the Internet Movie Data Base, here is that soliloquy:
"I was continuing to shrink, to become...what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close - the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet - like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God's silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man's own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends is man's conception, not nature's. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I STILL EXIST!"

While author Richard Matheson used a Judeo-Christian framework, the conclusion for The Incredible Shinking Man is both a universal picture, and a Universal Picture.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 3, 2005 04:12 PM