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Two new releases explore existentialism and ideas

What the #$!& has (heart) got to do with it? 

Two new releases explore existentialism and ideas

Every once in a while a movie comes along that elicits the description "philosophical," or even "metaphysical." Those terms, we can be sure, are meant not in the rather narrow and specific senses that would define them in academia, but, on the contrary, in the very general and encompassing sense of dealing with the big questions of life and, sometimes, the belief systems that humans use to address them. Recently two such movies have surfaced--both, coincidentally enough, burdened with weirdly clunky titles. That dubious distinction aside, I (heart) Huckabees (hereafter referred to as Huckabees) and What the #$!& Do We Know?! (hereafter What the Bleep) are as different as dogs and cats. The former, which bills itself an "existential" comedy, comes from an aggressively ambitious Hollywood indie auteur and was made in a fashion customary to films released by a studio boutique division like Fox Searchlight. The latter film, inevitably labeled "New Age," was self-financed by a West Coast software magnate and was self-distributed until it turned into such a word-of-mouth hit across the country that it was taken up by the Samuel Goldwyn Company.

Of the two, Huckabees has been taken far more seriously by critics, even if its reviews have been decidedly mixed. That respect, no doubt, owes to several factors, including that "existential" is still a respectable label in many quarters (more so than "New Age," at any rate); that the film is more or less conventionally mounted and features a bevy of stars, ranging from Jude Law and Naomi Watts to Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin; and that its director and co-writer, David O. Russell, has a decent reputation on the basis of three previous offbeat comedies, Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings. I liked all three of those well enough, incidentally, although the last, a knockabout satire of the Gulf War, struck me as a mite pretentious and opportunistic.

While all of Russell's previous movies were funny enough, my main memory of Huckabees will always be of sitting in a crowded screening room and hearing not a single laugh for vast stretches of time. This might be excusable if the film aimed for thoughtful bemusement or delayed comic gratification, but clearly that's not the case. During these periods of yawning silence the screen is filled with all manner of antic goings-on, involving the stars named above and more. Without question, it's meant to be hilarious, side-splitting, gut-busting. And it's rarely funny at all. I sat there wondering, How in the world did this bomb get made?

That remains the one serious existential question posed by Huckabees, and it was addressed after a fashion in a New York Times entertainment feature of Sept. 19. "Mr. Russell knew exactly what he wanted to create" with Huckabees, the article reports. "The trouble was, few others were able to grasp what that was. Many who read the script said they could not understand it, and several studios ... turned it down. (Later, some of the actors who went on to star in the film said that script had never made sense to them; they simply trusted Mr. Russell's vision)."

Now, you might think that in Hollywood the script is king, and people don't get to make movies that, on the page, are simply unfunny gibberish. Alas, that's not the case. Hollywood runs not on great screenplays but on ego, hype and fear. Certain filmmakers get to make movies solely due to their knack for bluster and intimidation. So it is with Russell, whose long-worsening case of narcissistic dementia seems to have gone wildly out of control in the run-up to Huckabees. One result was that he was able to bully and bamboozle various suits into backing his film and a small cadre of confused stars to appear in it. The second result, predictably, was that his "vision" sucks, extravagantly. Russell, by any measure, is no longer flirting with disaster. He's living it.

The funniest thing about the movie, arguably, is critics' efforts to synopsize its "story." E.g.: It stars Jason Schwartzman as an ecological activist ... who gets angry at Jude Law, a corporate shill for a giant chain store ... and engages "existential detectives" Tomlin and Hoffman to solve the mystery of why he keeps seeing the same Sudanese refugee ... then becomes paired with Mark Wahlberg, a traumatized fireman ... and so on.

Believe me, you don't want to read too much of this stuff because it's as tedious and pointless as the movie. But what of Huckabees' supposed philosophic pith? Well, that exists primarily in the turgid imagination of Russell, who once took a course at Columbia from the renowned Buddhist scholar Dr. Robert Thurman (Uma's dad) and here fantasizes that he's wittily satirizing his former prof by having Dustin Hoffman compare the universe to a blanket. That, a few gimmicky special effects and Russell's ability to spell such once fashionable words as "existential" and "nihilism" comprise the "thought" of Huckabees, which is less a movie, finally, than a stool sample documenting a Ripley's-worthy case of toxic egomania.

What the Bleep, on the other hand, actually is that rare thing: a film of ideas. Indeed, it may contain more intellectual juice per minute than any film ever to visit a multiplex, and no doubt the audiences who are turning it into a grassroots phenomenon delight in the way it projects ideas much as a Coke produces fizz. The film, though, is unorthodox enough that viewers on either end of the ideological spectrum (agnostic-materialist on the left, religious-literalist on the right) will find much to object to, both in those ideas and in the unusual cinematic broth that contains them.

The movie interweaves documentary and fiction in a manner all its own. The documentary aspects are composed of interview snippets from a couple of mystics and several heavily credentialed experts in fields such as quantum physics and neurobiology. Interestingly, these commentators are shown but not identified til the end of the film, which puts the emphasis on what they say rather than who they are. The fictional element, meanwhile, depicts a tormented photographer (played by the deaf Oscar nominee Marlee Matlin) confronting the sources of her unhappiness. This story, however, is told in a swirling, cartoony, mostly nonverbal style; it serves less as an illustration of the film's ideas than as a counterpoint to them, a dramatic yin offsetting the theoretical yang.

On its own terms, this shimmering mesh of ideas and action proves both entertaining and undeniably ingenious. What's to object to, then? Well, some viewers will find offense in the film's "New Agey" aesthetic (swooshy music, dreamy special effects) and the aura of self-help that surrounds its narrative. The filmmakers, though, evidently intend to challenge the "masculinist" aesthetic and assumptions that inform most movies, and if their softer approach isn't comprehensively persuasive, it is at least purposeful enough to merit serious consideration.

What the Bleep is credited to three co-directors: William Arntz, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente. Vicente seems to be the filmmaker in the bunch. Arntz, who funded the project out of his own deep pockets, is a software tycoon turned spiritual seeker turned moviemaker. All three belong to the Oregon school run by Ramtha, supposedly a 35,000-year-old wise man "channeled" by a woman named J.Z. Knight, who appears as one of the film's commentators. Is the movie, then, some kind of disguised propaganda for a New Age guru? Is its intellectual content vitiated by its makers' pedagogic affiliation?

I'm prepared to give Arntz and company the benefit of the doubt. Like The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11, What the Bleep is a film made out of an almost evangelical sense of personal conviction, and that's precisely what makes it so fascinating, agree with it or not. In fact, it fits rather neatly between Mel Gibson's paean to religious orthodoxy and Michael Moore's decidedly nonreligious political screed, since it represents a viewpoint that would heal our perilously divided world by bridging science and spirituality, the material and the metaphysical.

This viewpoint assumes a congruence, indeed a fast-approaching convergence, between traditional mystical thought and quantum-era scientific thought. In a nutshell: Reality, rather than being composed of an objective "out there" and a subjective "in here," is wholly, mysteriously unitary; the self, in a barely fathomable way, co-creates the world that it experiences as something beyond (and other than) itself.

The implications of this are as debatable as they are dizzying, and What the Bleep, to its credit, I think, seems aimed at stimulating debate rather than imposing new certainties. In this, it reminds us that the present era is a time of intellectual flux and change not unlike the late classical world, when Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Stoicism and other isms contended for the ground eventually won by Christianity. Or, to choose an example closer to home, there was Boston in the 1830s, when the eclectic efflorescence called the "New Thought" laid the groundwork for those two most American of philosophies, Transcendentalism and Pragmatism.

There's something deeply American--at once transcendental and pragmatic--about the philosophy of What the Bleep, too, for what is "you create your own reality" but a latter-day spin on Emersonian self-reliance? Not surprisingly, the film pushes the traditional boundaries of cinematic form with all it wants to convey. But not to worry. Its makers are promising a four-DVD version that will incorporate several more hours of their interviews. Meanwhile, a Web site ( whatthebleep.com ) offers links, books and other portals to the film's "rabbit hole of mysteriousness."

  • Two new releases explore existentialism and ideas

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