Last week, the national release of the independent film "What the Bleep Do We Know!?" seemed to be just the latest success story in the Year of the Documentary -- a little movie that could, launched into 60 theaters across the country by Samuel Goldwyn Films after selling out small theaters for months. The film's co-director, William Arntz, has called it "a film for the religious left," an answer to "The Passion of the Christ." It presents itself as the thinking rebel's alternative to Hollywood pabulum: a heady stew of drama and documentary, starring Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin as a Xanax-addled photographer who discovers joy when she learns that quantum mechanics makes spiritual wonders possible.
But the film -- buoyed by a slew of stories in regional and national outlets (including Salon) about its supposed grassroots success -- has largely avoided much skepticism. And as the distributors launched a national advertising campaign, on NPR's "All Things Considered" among other outlets, and earned respectable reviews from a number of critics (the San Francisco Examiner calls it a "smart film," and Roger Ebert, while not thrilled, gave it a thoughtful two and a half stars), their movie has managed to avoid much scrutiny of what, exactly, it's really about -- and who is behind it.
That has meant little attention has been given to either the film's agenda, or its questionable use of supposed experts. At least one scientist prominently interviewed in the film now says his words were taken out of context. And two other key subjects in the film are not fully identified: a theologian who, the film fails to divulge, is a former priest who left the Catholic Church after allegations of sexual abuse; and a mysterious woman identified only as Judy "JZ" Knight, who is actually a sect leader claiming to channel a 35,000-year-old warrior spirit named Ramtha. The film's three co-directors are among those who follow Ramtha and look to Knight's channeled maxims to decipher the mysteries of life. These Ramtha followers reportedly number in the thousands. But critics call the sect a cult.
In the movie, the 58-year-old Knight, whose accent is as thick as her mascara, makes the boldest statements -- pronounced with long, rolling R's -- about particles and God. "We have grrreat technology. But we still have this ugly, superrrstitious, backwahds cohncept of Gahd," she says, adding that "the height of arrrrrrogance is the belief of those who would see Gahd in their own image." Musing on the unity of consciousness and matter, she reminds us that "it only takes a fantasy for a man to have a harrrd-on." In her normal mode, Knight speaks the plain talk of her native Roswell, N.M., but in the manly presence of Ramtha, said to have conquered the continent neighboring Atlantis, Knight's jaw juts and her voice deepens into something magisterial and brash (view her here). Her Ramtha's School of Enlightenment, on a $2 million compound based in Yelm, Wash., boasts followers -- including celebrities like actress Shirley MacLaine (who attended Knight's seminars in the late '80s) and "Dynasty" star Linda Evans -- willing to pay up to $1,600 for a seminar.
Reached by Salon, Meyer Gottlieb, president of Samuel Goldwyn Films, says he's seen "Bleep" about eight times. Its fledgling distribution company Roadside Attractions had its first real hit earlier this year when it launched festival favorite documentary "Super Size Me" and is hoping for a similar sleeper hit with " Bleep." Asked what he thought of the expressed desire by filmmaker Mark Vicente (on a Ramtha Web site, BeyondTheOrdinary.net) for his viewers to emerge from his movie in an "almost trance-like state," Gottlieb only laughed.
"The question is, Is this movie promoting a cult?" he said. "The only thing we're interested in from a marketing perspective is creating a cult status for the film ... cults, from my perspective, they deal with groups and leaders and that stuff. This movie is about individual thinking. Individual control over your future -- and your own reality."
But not everyone involved in the movie has good things to say about that message.
David Albert, a professor at the Columbia University physics department, has accused the filmmakers of warping his ideas to fit a spiritual agenda. "I don't think it's quite right to say I was 'tricked' into appearing," he said in a statement reposted by a critic on "What the Bleep's" Internet forum, "but it is certainly the case that I was edited in such a way as to completely suppress my actual views about the matters the movie discusses. I am, indeed, profoundly unsympathetic to attempts at linking quantum mechanics with consciousness. Moreover, I explained all that, at great length, on camera, to the producers of the film ... Had I known that I would have been so radically misrepresented in the movie, I would certainly not have agreed to be filmed."
"I certainly do not subscribe to the 'Ramtha School on Enlightenment,' whatever that is!" he finished. Albert provided Salon with an excerpt from a piece he's writing on the subject, in which he says, in part, "I'm unwittingly made to sound as if (maybe) I endorse its thesis."
When told of Albert's complaints, Gottlieb said, "I certainly don't see it," but acknowledged he's "not into the science 100 percent." At press time, the filmmakers issued an angry "Open Letter to the U.S. Media" in which it attacked the "intellectual smugness and superiority" of its critics. (You can download the PDF file here.)
Knight's role as the voice of Ramtha is the most striking -- but hardly the only -- omission of the film, which could easily be interpreted as a full-blown infomercial for Ramtha. Two other on-screen experts are not identified as Ramtha associates: Dr. Joe Dispenza, chiropractor and mystic, listed as a student on the Ramtha Web site; and a man identified only as "Dr. Miceal Ledwith."
Ledwith (at one time Monsignor Michael Ledwith) was once on track to be the next archbishop of Dublin, but the theologian stepped down as president of Maynooth College in 1994, after a complaint that he had sexually harassed a young seminarian. It was later revealed that Ledwith had allegedly paid an six-figure sum to a man who accused him of sexual abuse. Ledwith has maintained his innocence but left Ireland for the more placid confines of Monterey, Calif. On the "Bleep" Web site, Ledwith's relationship with the Catholic Church is only alluded to in a claim that he was once "charged with advising the Holy See on theological matters," but he is not identified as ever having been a priest, or even as a lecturer at the Ramtha school. According to a Ramtha Web site, Ledwith has joined "Ramtha's core of appointed teachers." (The Ramtha school and Ledwith have not responded to requests for interviews. The "Bleep" Web site recommends that journalists contact an independent publicist, but the movie previously listed as its P.R. contact Pavel Mikoloski, also director of public affairs for Ramtha's school.)
Later in the film, a "scientist" explains that, thanks to the strangeness quivering below the subatomic level, meditating monks have lowered the crime rate in Washington, D.C. But not until the end of the film do we learn that the scientist making this claim, John Hagelin -- who once ran for president -- conducted the research while teaching (until 1999) at Maharishi University, the school named for the Beatles' guru. In JZ Knight's own publications, Ramtha's existence, too, is frequently explained in terms of quantum mechanics.
Funding for the $5 million "Bleep," according to various published interviews with the film's creators, comes not from Ramtha but the software fortunes of director Arntz, who designed the job-management application AutoSys. Now popular in Unix environments, the program sold for more than $14 million in 1995. (Eerily, the startup money for AutoSys was also of Atlantean origin, or so the original investor claimed. A 1999 piece in Wired by David Diamond described the life and suicide of Frederick Lenz III, a guru in his own right, who called himself not Ramtha but Rama. The software mogul told those who rendezvoused with Rama that he'd taught meditation classes on Atlantis. Later, Lenz said his students were bent on his murder, and he plunged himself into the waters of Long Island Sound with a $30,000 watch on his wrist and 150 tabs of Valium in his bloodstream.)
On the film's Web site FAQ, the filmmakers answer the question of whether "Bleep" is a recruitment film coyly, stating that "the short answer is no. During the making of the film [originally to be titled 'Sacred Science'] it was decided that what was important was the message, not the messenger -- whoever that may be. Some people may be inspired to check out RSE, and some people may be inspired to major at MIT in quantum teleportation." (At press time, MIT was not yet offering such a major.)
Ramtha's School of Enlightenment had previously promoted itself in its own films, but those had a lower budget. One was "Bleep" director Mark Vicente's 2002 "Where Angels Fear to Thread." Its trailer (available here) introduces Ramtha in the fashion of "Lord of the Rings," swinging a blade and raising a goblet to "the challenge of being an individual."
"Bleep" is a much slicker introduction. Its success relies heavily on word of mouth, accelerated by the use of "Bleep Teams" organized by Captured Light Industries, the production house set up by Arntz to create "Bleep." (The film's other production house, Lord of the Wind, is named for Ramtha himself.)
Heading the Bay Area street team is Kathy Vaquilar, who organized regular "Bleep" events in at least two cities a week during August. On Saturday, Aug. 14, she helped organize a discussion in Berkeley that featured a Ramtha representative, Cindy, "who told us more about the film's background, how it got started, and about the school," she posted on the "What the Bleep" forum the next day, when the movement was spreading to nearby Walnut Creek. The next night, a meeting was slated for San Francisco.
Vaquilar told Salon that she coordinates the "Bleep" campaign with a representative of Captured Light. "I don't know that much about the Ramtha school," she wrote in an e-mail to Salon, and hastens to defend its role. Knight, she writes, "was only used as an interview subject. What is taught at the school might seem weird to most mainstream people, but for those who study or read the same materials on their own without any connection to the school or to JZ Knight, their stuff is not considered unusual, but rather part of what's already cutting edge."
That edge is something Vaquilar is familiar with. In August she promoted the film at the Bay Area's UFO expo in Santa Clara, serving double duty with the International Contact Support Network, which comforts those who say they've encountered extraterrestrials. Vaquilar herself has written about meeting insectoids, who treated her fairly well; but Knight, speaking in the voice of Ramtha, has warned her own followers of the "Gray Men," a clique of hostile off-worlders controlling Earth's banks.
On the surface, the movie doesn't seem to be targeting the E.T.-obsessed; in fact, it seems to follow in the footsteps of Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" by asking us to thrill to the tapestry of space-time. But it has very little patience for Enlightenment concepts like measurable results and scientific proof. In the new science of "Bleep," symbolized by disembodied equations and CG bubbles flying at us like stars at warp speed, we're past all that.
We're also told that when Columbus came to America, the natives literally couldn't see his ships. They couldn't think outside the box of Indian life. And in a subway that seems like one of many conceits borrowed from the "Matrix" movies (whose metaphor has similarly been borrowed by David Icke, the British author who says the world is controlled by lizard men), the heroine learns that you can see chi energy particles of love, that they've been captured in photographs of water blessed by Buddhists. At this juncture Matlin hears a voice in her ear: "Makes you wonder, doesn't it?" It's Quark, the greedy alien from "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine"! Actually, it's the guy who plays him, Armin Shimerman, as one of several mysterious strangers guiding her to the truth.
The impression left from sitting through a screening of "What the Bleep" is that a lot of people enjoy hearing their griping about religious fundamentalists reflected back to them, backed by science. There's also plenty of stroking of lefty values; Ramtha has declared that all world religions have in common "the suppression of women," adding, with the brashness surely fashionable in the 33rd century B.C., "No woman who had an abortion has sinned against God. Fuck all those assholes who tell you that." On the other hand, papers from Knight's 1992 divorce case with Jeffrey Knight hint that Ramtha is an ancient homophobe, who allegedly declared that AIDS was Mother Nature's way of "getting rid of" homosexuality and told Jeffrey Knight he should reject modern medicine and overcome the disease using the school's breathing techniques, according to court testimony. Tom Szimhart, a "deprogrammer" who testified on behalf of Knight's husband (who eventually died of the disease) called the Ramtha school a cult with an anti-scientific bent.
The "backward" religion of Christianity, Ramtha explains in the movie, doesn't appreciate how the parables of Jesus are explained by photon waves and probability -- just as creationists suggest that the latest archaeological science can explain Noah's Ark and a very young Grand Canyon. The cumulative effect of "What the Bleep" -- whose co-director, Betsy Chasse, produced the evangelical teen comedy "Extreme Days" (2000) -- makes you wonder if it isn't as fundamentalist as the Christianity and Islam that Ramtha inveighs against.
Even the father of the Isn't the Universe Amazing genre, the late Sagan, called Ramtha out. He opened his 1997 book "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" by asking why, if Ramtha is 35,000 years old, he gives us only "banal homilies" (sample: "I have come to help you over the ditch ... It is called the ditch of limitation") instead of telling us, say, about the currency, technology, social order and use of birth control in prehistoric Lemuria -- a country popularized by Madame Blavatsky, the turn-of-the-20th-century psychic. Sagan's argument, which couldn't be further from the movie's, is that science has exposed so many natural wonders, there's no need to gild the lily with gray aliens, telepaths and the spirits of Cro-Magnon shoguns roaming the Evergreen State.