(RNS) A hybrid of narrative, documentary and computer imagery
blends science and spirituality may not seem like an obvious contender
the coveted title of the next "Blair Witch Project." But "What the #$!
Know," fueled by Internet chatter and simple word-of-mouth accolades, is
turning out to be the latest little movie to make a big splash.
"What the Bleep," as it's commonly known, started small, a $5
personal project dreamed up by software entrepreneur William Arntz, who
out to explore the convergence of scientific and spiritual ideas. The
debuted in Yelm, Wash., in February and has steadily gained traction
Seen by some as a kind of New Age answer to "The Passion of the
and other films that adhere to traditional religious teachings, the film
will play on 151 screens this weekend, up from 115 last weekend. The box
office exceeded the $5 million investment early this month.
Cutting between a storyline featuring an unhappy photographer,
Marlee Matlin, and interviews with physicists, medical doctors, a
and two spiritual teachers, the film addresses reality, consciousness
emotional addiction. In the process, it also critiques much of organized
religion's notion of an all-powerful God who judges right and wrong.
Together with his two co-directors, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente,
opened the film in Yelm because it's the home base of Ramtha's School of
Enlightenment, a gnostic college run by a woman who claims to channel a
35,000-year-old warrior, Ramtha, from the lost continent of Atlantis.
three filmmakers are students at the school.
Soon the film moved on to Portland, Ore., and film festivals like
one in Sedona, Ariz., places they figured would be hospitable to a movie
whose spirituality stems not from traditional religion but from the idea
that according to quantum physics, you create your own reality.
"Out in the pop cultural mainstream this information never gets out
there, this way of looking at the world," Arntz said in a conference
with Chasse, Vicente and Religion News Service.
After months at art-house cinemas -- where "What the Bleep" remained
upward of 20 weeks, far exceeding most theater owners' skeptical
expectations -- Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions noticed
numbers. The partnership picked up distribution, opening the movie Sept.
in selected cities around the country. It's shown no signs of slowing
Its success stems in part from an apparent hunger for movies with
explicitly spiritual themes. Arntz earlier had described "What the
a movie for the "religious left."
"Then I changed it to the metaphysical left," he said. "I was trying
come up with a term for a group of people in this society that has never
been properly identified."
Douglas E. Cowan, an assistant professor of religious studies and
sociology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, agreed that the
target audience had been underserved by Hollywood. "In general -- and
the Bleep' is an exception -- films reflect very traditional religious
values. They don't actually push any boundaries other than the narrative
tension that allows those values to bring about resolution in the end.
This movie is obviously a reflection of what (the filmmakers) believe."
Mass-market spirituality, though, cannot help but touch a nerve, and
critics of "What the Bleep" have raised concerns about the film's
wondering if science may have been at least oversimplified in order to
buttress the directors' beliefs.
Ramtha the ancient warrior speaks through a woman named J.Z. Knight,
has claimed to channel Ramtha since the late 1970s. Knight appears in
movie as one of the spiritual teachers.
At least four of the other 12 interview subjects either teach at the
school, owned and run by Knight, or have written books that are included
the curriculum, which dabbles in science to provide a foundation for the
teaching that each person is God.
None of the experts interviewed in the movie is identified until the
of the film, and viewers are left unaware of the filmmakers' association
with Ramtha, though the movie's Web site does make the affiliation
Knight's tactics have come under fire since the 1980s, when she
earning millions of dollars from the sale of Ramtha's messages and
cataclysmic events. Today the school offers workshops and retreats
at $800 for beginners.
"They're encouraging people to question the basis of their own
but they do not encourage any kind of questioning of Ramtha's," said Joe
Szimhart, who helped to orchestrate interventions in the 1980s and 1990s
those worried about family members or friends involved in what they
to be harmful new religions or spiritual groups. Szimhart is currently
consulting with a woman whose marriage fell apart after her husband
David Albert, director of Columbia University's master's program in
philosophical foundations of physics, took issue from a purely
view with the main thrust of consciousness acting as the primary
"The claim of the movie that quantum mechanics shows us that
consciousness is the ground of all being and that it follows that by
thinking in the right way we can make reality the way we want it to be,
absolutely false," he said.
Albert said he spent hours with the filmmakers during his interview
about two years ago explaining his opposition to "the kinds of ideas
were pushing for. ... Not a hint of that shows up in the movie."
Defending the decision to leave Albert's and others' objections on
cutting room floor, Arntz said that he never envisioned a strict
on consciousness and quantum physics. Instead, he said, "We set out to
describe a certain worldview."
Marketing material and the film's Web site nonetheless describe
the Bleep" as at least part documentary, and no disclaimer or narrator
explains to viewers that dissenting opinions may lurk among the rosy
of Amanda reaching peace after she takes a trip "down the rabbit hole of
"This is our interpretation," said Chasse, who nonetheless
the movie wasn't meant to exclude anyone, no matter their religious
"This is not a dialogue between those who believe this and those who