“A new ignorance is on the horizon, an ignorance borne not of a lack of knowledge but of too much knowledge, too much data, too many theories, too little time,” writes Eugene Thacker in the third and final volume of his Horror of Philosophy series, Tentacles Longer Than Night. One certainly gets that feeling while reading John D’Agata’s book About a Mountain, and watching L. Frances Henderson’s new documentary adaptation of it, This Much We Know. We know a lot — scores of graphs, charts, statistics, experts, theories, and scenarios — but in the face of this excess, we confront the inevitable impasse of knowledge. We can’t know the future, and we can’t know why people do the things they do. We can’t ever really know why he or she died by suicide.
The investigation into a suicide is a major component of This Much We Know. At the time, Las Vegas was the suicide capital of America, and Henderson focuses on the death of one young man in 2002, a teenager named Levi who ascended the highest building in Vegas and waved goodbye before jumping off. Henderson speaks with Levi’s parents, friends, and Taekwondo instructor, health officials, experts in suicide, and a range of people with various degrees of knowledge, differently sized puzzle pieces that never add up to a full picture. She lost one of her own friends to suicide, fueling her motivation, as if to unlock one victim’s reasoning is to glimpse inside everyone’s hidden logic.
At the same time, This Much We Know studies the 30-year-long research project for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, a disturbing plan to store 70 thousand metric tons of nuclear waste inside a mountain 80 miles from Las Vegas. This seemingly incongruous narrative thematically intertwines with Henderson’s exploration of suicide in poetic and interesting ways. The result is a haunting, almost structuralist documentary drama that stands out from just about anything else this year.
(Never) Understanding Suicide
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide,” says Albert Camus at the start of his text, The Myth of Sisyphus. It’s “to be or not to be, that is the question” in so many words — why choose life over death, or vice versa? It may seem like an absurdly sophomoric question to some people who have never grappled with anhedonia, angst, or despair. To them, you just keep on living; any life is better than death. But to some, the nothingness of death is a step up.
For people who can’t comprehend why someone would end their own life, David Foster Wallace’s description of suicidal reasoning always seems to suffice. He likens suicide to leaping from a burning building:
Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me […] The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames.
The thing which leaves an unshakable trace, though, is when you don’t see it coming at all. In This Much We Know, Levi is not described as a brooding, tortured soul; quite the opposite, in fact. Henderson recalls her own friend being happy days before her suicide. And so a seed is planted, and This Much We Know almost becomes a noir thriller in some ways as Henderson plays detective, secretly following one character, receiving an anonymous ominous phone call threatening her investigation, etc. Las Vegas is the perfect setting for this, being a city of artifice. Who knows what they’re covering up with all that glitz and glamor?
The Known Unknowns of Nuclear Waste
The Yucca Mountain aspect of the documentary certainly doesn’t work as well as Henderson’s excellent focus on suicide. It simply lacks the emotion, the wide array of characters, and the dramatic tension and suspense, but it still manages to add thematic value to the film as a whole, and Henderson’s decision to intertwine the stories creates good pacing. And it also introduces us to Dr. Michael Voegele, the chief engineer on the Yucca Mountain project. He’s a dynamic and tragic character. Reiterating her themes, Henderson’s voiceover states, “I was intrigued by the confidence Michael put forth, that he could know the truth about something so unknown.”
The segments about Yucca Mountain, Dr. Voegele, Indigenous people and protesters, and hypothetical nuclear scenarios allow Henderson to throw even more facts and figures into the mix, which ultimately adds up to just more uncertainty, mirroring her exploration into suicide. The more we know, the more we know that we don’t know.
Dr. Voegele spent 30 years of his life on a project that will never happen, and yet remains a firm believer in the nuclear waste repository. He has binders and binders filled with analytical data proving, to him, that the Yucca Mountain repository would be safe. Henderson defers to Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous, quasi-tautological phrasing of ‘known knowns,’ ‘known unknowns,’ and ‘unknown unknowns.’ Dr. Voegele’s certainty represents a known unknown, something that can’t be known until it happens. Henderson’s investigation into the suicides of Levi and her own friend delves into unknown unknowns.
Sitting with This Much We Know
The aforementioned Eugene Thacker wrote the following in his first volume of The Horror of Philosophy, titled In the Dust of This Planet:
“We have to entertain the possibility that there is no reason for something existing; or that the split between subject and object is only our name for something equally accidental we call knowledge; or, an even more difficult thought, that while there may be some order to the self and the cosmos, to the microcosm and macrocosm, it is an order that is absolutely indifferent to our existence, and of which we can have only a negative awareness.”
This Much We Know leaves viewers with this feeling of negative awareness, and gives us the opportunity to let go of knowing for a moment. It’s a beautifully filmed, artfully edited, and carefully plotted mystery of a documentary, one that abandons any sense of resolution and invites us to sit with a new ignorance. This feeling can either be horrifyingly depressing or surprisingly liberating and calming. It’s up to you, but if you’re going to take a cinematic risk this year, Henderson’s film deserves your attention.
From Oscilloscope Laboratories, This Much We Know had its world premiere at the 2022 Camden International Film Festival, and is due to be released theatrically in NYC on Friday, November 10th and will open in LA on Wednesday, November 15th. You can watch the trailer below:
https://movieweb.com/this-much-we-know-review/ This Much We Know Review