Back Down the Rabbit Hole

By Mark Satola, The Cleveland Free Times (Originally published on Jan 12, 2005)

Movie Review:

?I JUST NEVER WANTED to hear the ?God' word ever again,? says William Arntz, producer, co-director and co-writer, with Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente, of the independent box-office phenomenon, the semi-documentary What the (Bleep) Do We Know?

Those words might seem strange coming from one of the creators of a movie that examines the compelling interface between spirituality, neurochemistry and quantum physics, and outlines a new model for thinking about the universe and man's role in it. But the experience that elicited the remark will sound familiar to many people.

?When I was in ninth grade, I asked the question that many kids asked: if a kid is born in India and they die before they hear about Jesus Christ, do they fry forever in Hell?? says Arntz, who was raised a Lutheran. ?The answer came back: ?Yes.' To this day, I remember I just went ?click' and turned the whole thing off, because I was just so disgusted.?

The ?G? word, nevertheless, appears frequently in What the (Bleep), often in connection with some of the stranger implications of quantum mechanics theories, but also in discussions of the relevance of traditional concepts of God in light of recent world events (the movie was made before the Asian tsunami disasters but after the 9/11 attacks). That audiences are far more interested in spiritual matters than Hollywood wisdom would have held was made plain last year by the success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

The more radical What the (Bleep) has had, if anything, a more remarkable success than Gibson's movie, given the media saturation around Gibson's staging of Jesus's crucifixion; What the (Bleep)'s success was due almost entirely to word of mouth, and its runs in theaters around the country turned the Hollywood model of success opening strong, then a short run of dwindling returns on its head, opening quietly and building slowly over unusually long engagements as audiences spread the word about it and attended in ever-increasing numbers.

Arntz suggests that he and his colleagues were not so much predicting a trend as simply following their own instincts. ?All three of us were tired of car crashes and people shooting people and that kind of junk that you see in the movies,? he says. ?The assumption that most Hollywood movies makes is that the audience is stupid. Our assumption going into this movie was that the audience is smart.?

For those who haven't seen it, What the (Bleep) Do We Know? Combines onscreen interviews with leading physicists, biologists and spiritual experts with a narrative starring Marlee  Matlin as Amanda, a professional photographer in a spiritual cul-de-sac, separated from her philandering husband Bob and gobbling anti-anxiety pills at every crisis, who is led into a world of infinite possibilities by a ?random? encounter with 12-year-old Reginald (Robert Bailey Jr.), lord of a basketball court where, as in quantum physics, nothing is as it seems.

As basketballs multiply,disappear and return to a single manifest unity, Amanda finds herself on the brink of a universe where infinite possibilities spread out both tantalizingly and disturbingly before her. ?The question is, how far down the rabbit hole do you want to go?? Reginald asks her.

Amanda and the audience plunge into the looking-glass world of multi-dimensional universes, the non-existence of matter, the power of thought to affect the world around us and the God-nature in every human being. Computer animation is employed to help illustrate the implications of her story as the talking heads discuss the science behind those implications.

It's a three-headed approach that ensures that its sometimes difficult and paradoxical ideas will communicate easily to the audience.

Arntz came to filmmaking through the side door, making 8mm movies with his friends in junior high school and continuing through college, when he helped a friend, who was a graduate student in film at Boston University, make a 16mm sound feature as his master's thesis. Despite his own training as a scientist (he graduated summa cum laude from Penn State University with a degree in engineering science), Arntz was bitten by the movie bug, but was reluctant to pursue his interest through traditional channels.

?I couldn't bring myself to go to L. A. and kiss everyone's butt, so I just blew it off,? he says. ?I figured it was just a childish dream, and decided I'd just go get enlightened instead. ?That hasn't happened yet,? he adds. He did find himself drawn to the stranger paradoxes behind traditional Newtonian physics, however. ?I was always interested in time and space, especially time,? he says. ?What is time? I kept thinking that physics was going to tell me what it was. Well, I got to the end of relativity and I realized it wasn't going to tell me what it was, it was just basically modeling it.

?If you're still questioning after that point, you take the step into metaphysics.?

Arntz was finally able to realize his moviemaking dream with the proceeds from the sales of two companies he'd founded. As of January 1, What the (Bleep) had taken in $10,091,903, joining other indie phenoms Fahrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me and The Passion of the Christ.

?It's like an event,? he says. ?Everyone goes down the rabbit hole together, and then the lights come up and you look around, which is profound for a lot of people, who've been stuck in what I call their metaphysical closets  doing this little practice or that little practice  and keeping pretty much to themselves, because society comes down heavily on you if you're involved in any spirituality outside any organized religion. It's a revelation for people to look around and realize they're out in public with, quote-unquote, random people who share this vision.

?A lot of people say they end up going to this movie multiple times because they want to meet new people they have a similar world view with.?