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Before NXIVM and The Vow, Mark Vicente Directed a Truly Bizarre Hit Documentary

Marlee Matlin in What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?
Marlee Matlin in What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

In the season (I know) finale of The Vow, Mark Vicente and Bonnie Piesse wind their way back to the Albany area to sort through all the belongings they left behind when they fled NXIVM, the reported cult in which they’d spent years. It’s a trip meant to serve as closure for the couple as well as for the series, which serves up images of the pair standing reflectively at night in front of their former house, murmuring about how they’re probably being surveilled at that very moment. While rummaging through the contents of their storage unit later, Vicente pauses to hold up a copy of What the Bleep Do We Know!?: Discovering the Endless Possibilities for Altering Your Everyday Reality, which was published to accompany the 2004 movie of the same name he directed. “I wrote this book,” he sighs to the camera. “Another life.” His tone is rueful, that of a man marveling at how much time has passed since then, and also what could have been, had he not fallen under the spell of NXIVM leader Keith Raniere.

It’s entirely likely he wouldn’t have done much, at least in terms of Hollywood. The Vow, for all of its bloat, never gets around to giving Vincente’s career the context it deserves. The HBO series’ focus on Vicente is one of its most maddening if understandable choices. As NXIVM’s in-house videographer, he’s responsible for so much of the footage that makes the HBO series engaging, but he’s also an exasperating subject, more prone to shows of drama than self-examination, even as we learn more about the workings of the group and his participation in it. Vicente is introduced as an acclaimed filmmaker who was fresh off a hit documentary when he was approached by NXIVM. “I could pretty much call any production company, any studio, and they would fucking take my call and meet with me,” he explains. But this framing doesn’t give a sense of just how weird the 2004 film What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? actually is. It was an independent phenom that, with the help of targeted marketing and strategic screenings, made almost $16 million worldwide. It was also indirect advertising for the whole other guru-led organization that Vicente and co-directors William Arntz and Betsy Chasse were part of at the time — Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment.

What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? is a hybrid affair that’s part talking head interviews, part early computer graphics freakout (worked on by future District 9 star Sharlto Copley), and part fictional story. The scripted element stars Marlee Matlin as a Portland photographer struggling to get over her husband’s infidelity at their own nuptials. Unfortunately for her, her job involves a lot of weddings, and after having to shoot one taking place at the church in which she was married (there are Polish jokes and also a dance number), she reaches a point of crisis. As she goes about her days, the film cuts in interviews on subjects ranging from quantum physics to the nature of God to an insistence that we create our own realities and have the power to change them with our minds. What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? bounces from explanations of big scientific theories to ideas about cognitive therapy, and into hazier spirituality, assuming its viewer can see the connections it wants to make between the observer effect and the ability to manifest changes in one’s personal life with one’s thoughts. It’s as clear as mud — or, as one of the interviewees puts it early on, “What I thought was unreal, now, for me, seems in some ways to be more real than what I think to be real, which seems now more to be unreal.”

That sound bite comes courtesy of Fred Alan Wolf, a theoretical physicist with some fringier ideas as to how his field relates to consciousness. Several of the talking heads, like Wolf and Candace Pert (the American neuroscientist who discovered the opiate receptor), fall into the category of respected scientists with New Age tendencies. Others, like chiropractor turned motivational speaker Joseph Dispenza, would be better described as shady self-help purveyors who bolster their claims with scientific terms. One interviewee, physicist David Albert, felt his statements had been so misleadingly edited to make it look like he agreed with the film’s ideas that he complained to Popular Science, saying “I was really gullible, but I learned my lesson.” Included alongside these figures is a blonde woman with a fluctuating accent who turns out to be J. Z. Knight, otherwise known as Ramtha — the name of the 35,000-year-old Lemurian warrior spirit Knight claims to be channeling. Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment, still going strong in Yelm, Washington, doesn’t have NXIVM’s scale or level of scandals, but it has weathered its own problems, including allegations its members were instructed to drink lye and a live-streamed incident in which Knight spouted all sorts of hate speech during a wine ceremony.

Knight isn’t introduced as Ramtha the first time she appears on screen. Neither she, nor any of the other dozen or so talking heads in What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? are named until the end credits, which is when many of them also list their academic bona fides at length. For most of the film, Knight is presented only as part of this chorus of experts, a choice that seems intended to create a halo effect, anointing her by proximity with the credentials the film makes a point of emphasizing in its other interviewees. As a movie, What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? is amateurish and corny, from the Mucinex mascot-looking animated blobs meant to represent cells to its enactment of an apocryphal, and, frankly, racist story about how natives of the West Indies couldn’t see Columbus’ armada approaching because clipper ships were so beyond the scope of their experience at the time. But those hackneyed qualities didn’t matter to the audiences that found meaning in it and made it a word-of-mouth hit, especially on the New Age cinema circuit through which fellow The Vow subject Sarah Edmondson met Vicente. Its messaging isn’t dissimilar to that at the core of NXIVM’s Executive Success Program — one of the power of the right kind of thinking to change your outlook and, possibly, reality as well. The idea of creating change with your mind is hardly new, but it’s been given different contexts, and in the mid-’00s, the most successful one was the DIY doc. A year and a half after What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?, The Secret would emerge, first in doc and then in book form, going on to be an even bigger hit.

People not on the woo-woo wavelength of What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? tended to see it as a bemusing oddity. “The parts have so little connection and fit together so strangely that the movie seems to be channel surfing. This is not a bad thing, but wondrously curious,” Roger Ebert wrote. It was treated as harmless, though it wasn’t entirely, with its anti-pharmaceuticals bent. The film concludes with Matlin’s character triumphantly binning her anxiety meds after achieving enlightenment. It’s a moment that recalls Edmondson’s first encounter with Vicente at a cruise ship film festival, where he asked her, “What do you lose if you stop coughing?” and she decides her sickness is psychosomatic in its origins and quickly recovers. And in that sense, What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? serves as essential context for not just who Vicente is, but his own susceptibility to a particular kind of authority. The Vow is, in many ways, about a group of people looking for alternatives to religion — for community, purpose, and meaning outside of traditional spiritual structures. Both the Ramtha school and NXIVM use a pretense of scientific backing to insist that they are something different, something real. “It’s filed in the patent office under artificial intelligence,” Vicente says of what drew him to Raniere’s “technology” in the series’ first episode. “This isn’t about mystical beliefs and howling at the moon and holding a crystal. This was like science.”

Ironically, when testifying at Raniere’s trial, Vicente said that the NXIVM leader brought up Ramtha when trying to recruit him, teasing that “he needed to deprogram me from my mystical beliefs.” It’s hard not to believe that Raniere saw in Vicente an ideal propagandist, not just because of the particular nature of his seeking, but because What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? feels constructed with an understanding that it needs to legitimize Ramtha by putting her alongside more mainstream experts. For Raniere, one route to making himself and his organization respectable came from courting the Dalai Lama. But another can be seen in one of the reverent clips of Raniere that Vicente shot while part of NXIVM, in which the cult leader muses, “I consider myself more credentialed as a scientist. I don’t have a lot of high-level credentials, but I think I’m a good scientific thinker. I think that my credentials are I’m an interesting person, I’m a controversial person, but most importantly I’m an unconventional person.” The meaning of “scientist” in this context feels removed from all standard definitions, instead serving as means of claiming masterliness. What Raniere understands, and what Vicente also seems to, at least instinctually, is that people want a reason to believe that someone has all the answers. And so much of Vicente’s NXIVM footage showcases someone trying to figure out the best way to assure people that he does.

Before NXIVM, Mark Vicente Directed a Truly Bizarre Hit Doc