ponedjeljak, 4. ožujka 2013.

Peter Mettler - Gambling, Gods and LSD

Of This Place and Elsewhere

Poetični eseji u obliku filmskih dokumentaraca. Negdje između Koyaanisqatsija i Nostalgije za svjetlom Patricia Guzmána.


The original idea for GGLSD surfaced in 1988, but it wasn’t until Picture of Light was completed in 1994 that Mettler was able to devote himself fully to the project. From the beginning, the process of making the film was structured as a voyage of discovery. Mettler explains: "It was important for this project not to depend on a script or a preconceived shooting plan. It was a more open and intuitive way of working. Such a process still requires decisions and choices, but they were made in response to the apparently random flow of events and people who crossed my path.”
Working alone or with a small crew, Mettler shot film and video footage in Canada, the USA, Switzerland and India (see list of appearances). Four themes set the conceptual guidelines for shooting: the desire to transcend; the denial of death; the illusion of safety; our relationship to nature. These themes played a guiding role in selecting subjects for the film, as well as suggesting how to respond to and film the subjects. The encounters themselves created the journey’s own logic. As Mettler says: "I wanted to let one thing lead to the next, allowing the film to make itself – so that its structure might reflect the logic of life’s unfolding.”
Mettler’s travels for the film occurred intermittently between late 1997 and early 1999. He began the editing process in 1998 in a rambling wooden farmhouse in the Swiss canton of Appenzell, loaned to the production by the Schlesinger Foundation as a year-long artist-in-residence grant. The following year Mettler moved his digital editing system into an abandoned hotel in nearby St. Anton, which he and a group of fellow artists had turned into a collective working residence.
In a first, rough editing stage, Mettler and his co-editor Roland Schlimme created a 55-hour assembly culled from a larger quantity of original material. Mettler explains: "Nothing was ever shot twice, there were no re-takes or multiple camera angles, so the 55 hours contained a multitude of different scenes and characters. I put the material together chronologically and tried to crystallize scenes and sequences according to what the material itself suggested. The challenge was to create a structure and a story while preserving the chronological order of events without imposing too much from outside. It was important to let the material breathe.”
Right from the start, sound design played an important role in structuring the film. Sound influenced the picture editing choices as much as the picture would call for a certain sound, and these had to blend with the spoken word of the people interviewed. Mettler worked with collaborators to develop individual sound elements as accompaniment or counterpoint to specific contexts within the emerging film. Original aural elements were created by noted Swiss sound designer Peter Bräker, musician Fred Frith and DJ Dimitri de Perrot.
The soundtrack also merges sounds and music recorded on location, ranging from Las Vegas casino ambience through techno halls to Indian religious ceremonies. It also uses pre-recorded music by various artists, including Jim O’Rourke, Henryk Gorecki, Tony Coe, Knut and Silvy, Christian Fennesz and others (for a full list, see music credits at www.gambling-gods-and-lsd.ch).
As a Swiss-Canadian co-venture the film could partake of the expertise available in both countries throughout all stages of the production. Financing also occurred on an international basis. The film’s first and critical supporter was the late Andreas Züst, best known to Mettler fans as a principal character in Picture of Light. Further funding came from the Swiss Federal Office of Culture (EDI), the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SRG SSR Idée Suisse), ARTE, the city and canton of Zurich and Telefilm Canada. Additional support was received from a number of foundations and arts organizations in both countries, and in the form of goodwill from many associated participants.
Gambling, Gods and LSD was co-produced by Cornelia Seitler of maximage GmbH, Zurich, and Alexandra Rockingham Gill and Ingrid Veninger of Grimthorpe Film Inc., Toronto.

The End of Time (2012, 114 minutes)

 Working at the limits of what can easily be expressed, filmmaker Peter Mettler takes on the elusive subject of time, and once again turns his camera to filming the unfilmmable.
From the particle accelerator in Switzerland, where scientists seek to probe regions of time we cannot see, to lava flows in Hawaii which have overwhelmed all but one home on the south side of Big Island; from the disintegration of inner city Detroit, to a Hindu funeral rite near the place of Buddha's enlightenment, Mettler explores our perception of time. He dares to dream the movie of the future while also immersing us in the wonder of the everyday.
THE END OF TIME, at once personal, rigorous and visionary, Peter Mettler has crafted a film as compelling and magnificent as its subject.


 "... recalling the work of Terrence Malick, Werner Herzog and the late Chris Marker... THE END OF TIME becomes immersive and hypnotic... a ravishingly beautiful experience." - Stephen Dalton

"A work of vision... A globe-trotting cine-essay about time... poetic and lovely."Adam Nayman

"Mettler's trippy films work as perceptual experiences... free your mind, and the rest will follow."
Mark Peranson

"Peter Mettler traverses the globe to explore (and explode) our conceptions of time, in this entrancing combination of documentary and mind-expanding philosophical speculation." Steve Gravestock

"One of Canada's great cinematic experimentalists returns with a documentary exploring the meaning of time... There is not a hint of the didactic here, but rather pure contemplation, much like Graham Coleman's 1979 masterpiece Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy, which also sought to introduce a timeless, meditative state for viewers."The Globe and Mail

"Peter Mettler's poetic lens has inquired into everything from personal fulfillment (Gambling, Gods and LSD) to the Northern Lights (Picture of Light). Now he's after his most elusive prey yet: the very human concept of time... (The End of Time) is of a piece with Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light, a film that similarly finds miraculous unity in seemingly random things." Peter Howell

"A film trip. A world film." Les Inrockuptibles

"A form of cinematic meditation ... powerful, moving and sensually ravishing to watch." Geoff Pevere

"Peter pushes forward with every new film, in his bid for a re-visioned consciousness." Philip Hoffman

"Mettler has tuned himself to the world. Always receptive to the unexpected." Peter Weber

"One of the year's best films, The End of Time isn't something you simply watch; it's something you surrender to." Peter Howell
"This mesmerizing documentary uses images and sound to observe time and make our understanding of it palpable." Paul Ennis

 "To call it a documentary is misleading... Cosmomentary would be a more appropriate name for the genre Mettler is pioneering." Brian Johnson

"The End of Time explores an impressive array of ideas related to humankind's relationship with time. Better yet, it does so while providing an uncommonly intense degree of audiovisual stimulation - leave it to Mettler to make lava flows seem impossibly sexy." Jason Anderson

"Mettler approaches time as might an alien who s come to Earth for the first time..." Angelo Muredda

After travelling through such far-flung sites as Detroit, Hawaii, India, and the geek-tacular labyrinth that is CERN’s Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Peter Mettler’s latest documentary finally leaves the material world altogether, arriving at a ripping pool of sounds and images that rates as the most splendiferously trippy sequence of the filmmaker’s career. Yet there’s a moment in The End of Time that may be more mind-bending (and time-bending) than the spectacular finale of Mettler’s inquiry into matters generally reserved for physicists, philosophers, and voyagers of astral planes.
It consists of a view of Mettler’s editing suite in his Toronto home, a dark space that is enlivened by the images on a video monitor (such as an Indian funeral pyre) as well as the shifting conflagration of shadow and daylight on the wall and ceiling beyond the desk. Brief and unexpected, the scene calls attention not just to the construction of the film we’re watching, but more peculiar conditions that are pertinent to Mettler’s practice and to his new film in particular. One is the paradoxical situation that requires a filmmaker like Mettler—who splits his time between Canada and Switzerland—to live as both nomad and hermit. He may need to travel the globe for years in order to collect the extraordinary images that fill films like Gambling, Gods and LSD (2003), his acutely personal investigation into humankind’s perpetual quest for transcendence. And yet the task of stitching them together into some kind of whole ultimately forces him to curb his peripatetic tendencies and spend endless hours in this dimly lit room, fingers twitching over mouse and keyboard. This may be a reason why Mettler has devoted so much energy in recent years to developing visual mixing software that promises to alleviate the tedium of this process and allow for the possibility of real-time live performance.
The other condition evoked by this moment in The End of Time has more to do with—you guessed it—time. In Mettler’s view, cinema functions as a kind of “time machine,” one that can merge a huge array of different temporalities into one continuous, essentially atemporal stream experienced over the course of a film’s duration, which in the case of The End of Time is either 109 or 114 minutes. (Much to Mettler’s chagrin, North Americans will see a longer version due to the differences in frame rates; he found the latter “painfully slow” the one time he was able to watch it.)
The sudden revelation of Mettler’s editing suite is just one moment worth exploring (or exploding) in a film that is ridden with wormholes and fissures. That he dares to cap off the climactic sequence—which he refers to as “Mixxa”—with a tidy bit of Mobius-looping is entirely keeping with the Herzogian spirit of adventure that informs the whole of The End of Time. While a film that hinges on the question “What is time?” ought to be un-watchably pretentious (and Mettler’s voiceover narration and his interviewees’ statements occasionally prompt a red flag in that regard—though it’s intentional), the framework that the query creates allows for Mettler and his subjects to temporarily reconcile a bewildering array of binaries: science and religion, art and nature, the eternal and the ephemeral. Just as likely to discern an element of the sublime in a Hawaiian lava flow as he is in the most rusted corners of post-industrial Detroit, Mettler remains one of the planet’s most astute (and patient) cinematographers. That attention to detail(s) is matched by The End of Time’s almost impossibly dense and intricately designed soundtrack, which integrates natural sources with original music by a variety of composers as well as Autechre, Thomas Köner and Plastikman (the latter’s alter ego Richie Hawtin is also featured as an onscreen subject).
At the end of these many and varied travels, we arrive at a film that is Mettler’s most readily engaging since Picture of Light—his 1994 ode to the majesty of the Northern Lights as witnessed from northern Manitoba—yet also his most experimental and intellectually provocative. Anyone who emerges from Mettler’s time machine will know that the time he spent toiling in that editing suite—as well as at the performance in Paris which turned out to be a first stab at the synapse-fryer that is Mixxa—did not go to waste.
Cinema Scope: Setting off to make a film based on the question “What is time?” seems daunting to say the least. How did you begin to break down this particular eternal quandary into something a little more manageable?
Peter Mettler: It was clear to me from the beginning that you can ask that question and there’s no real answer. I did a lot of research and looked in a lot of directions, so I knew it would be overwhelming. But I didn’t know it would lead to this idea that, “Actually, you know what? Everything is time.” As one of the scientists in the film puts it, “Time means we are.” It’s the framework we use to organize our perception. I wanted to ask the question to see where it led me, rather than try to look at all the different thinking about, and possibilities of, time. That would be too vast even if you made a series about it—it could also become too trite. So the film is more about our perception of time than anything else.
Scope: The film nevertheless delves into examples of different kinds and concepts of time. We’re certainly made to feel aware of how time takes on various meanings if the context is geological, quantum, astronomical, seasonal, cinematic, or even generational. Did this become a way of creating some parameters for a topic that may otherwise be infinite in scope?
Mettler: I did choose certain kinds of time because there are so many. Then I could choose a set of things I could explore. That’s how I approach my films, as explorations. I don’t know what I’m going to find, so the process becomes a combination of research and exploration. You find what you find and then divine a structure out of the material you have. One idea that was already happening during the writing and researching of this film was about the Alberta tar sands. By chance, Greenpeace called me to recommend someone to do some cinematography work for them, and I told them that I was interested in researching it myself. That just blossomed into a whole other thing which became Petropolis (2009). But had that film not come out of it, it might’ve not even have made it into The End of Time. If it had, it probably would have ended up being a small passage. That happened in Gambling, Gods and LSD: I’d shoot a fair bit of material around different instances and then in the final film they’d end up being one image or two shots.
Scope: One danger with this process is creating a huge surplus of footage you can never use. Was that an issue here, especially given that The End of Time is much more concise than Gambling, Gods and LSD?
Mettler: I was careful with this film in terms of the number of subjects because I was quite frustrated in Gambling, Gods and LSD by how much I couldn’t use. There was so much left out of the final edit of the film—not just more shots but actual subjects and people and other interesting things. Compared to a model for TV or the internet, the feature-film model is fairly time-restrictive. It has its own laws and you have to obey them.
Scope: Since you weren’t so compelled to cram an excess of material into such a limited space, did you feel like you had greater control over the film’s own sense of rhythm and flow? It’s remarkably varied.
Mettler: That’s not premeditated at all. Even now, if you ask me what the structure of the film is, I find it fairly obtuse. The way it’s structured doesn’t add up to something familiar to me. I must say that’s something I like. Johan van der Keuken inspired me the most in this respect. He let the experience of the filming and the subjects determine the lengths of his scenes. In his films you have very long scenes around certain things and very quick ones around others, but it doesn’t serve an overarching, expected architecture. I like that because I think it’s closer to the truth of how we experience things. The arc of our lives is pretty predictable in terms of how we age and how our bodies age. But in terms of day-to-day experience, especially if we’re open to letting the thing that’s happening right now take you somewhere, the time frames can be radically short or long. You might end up looking at a landscape for several hours and then the next thing you know, you’re in a car speeding by that same landscape at 120 km/h and your thought process is completely different.
Scope: The End of Time’s many visual motifs give it another sort of structure as well. Along with the clouds and smoke, the most striking are the huge array of circular shapes, especially those enormous discs we see at CERN. The movie presents them as if they’re these ornate, high-tech mandalas. When did you make this link between them and the more explicitly religious symbols we see elsewhere?
Mettler: Only very late. The footage at CERN was shot during our research stage because we couldn’t go down there once the particles had started crashing. When we asked about going initially, they said, “If you want to film come now because you won’t be able to film anything later.” I hadn’t really formed a lot of ideas about what I wanted to do; I just knew I was interested in this place. When I saw those discs—they’re particle detectors—I immediately made this association with Buddhism and other mandalic symbols and thought, “Hmm, that could be interesting.” That was the extent of it. But they kept popping up, and I started to wonder why these circular or spherical shapes were so attractive. In physics, when particles collide, they go out in a sphere. According to the Big Bang Theory, that’s what created our universe, so everything in the universe is spherical. So it makes sense that you would make something round to meditate upon. It went up a notch when my friend Bruno Degazio and Christos Hatzis created this audiovisual composition called Harmonia [Mettler integrates it into the “Mixxa” sequence]. It’s actually a picture of harmonics: there are 64 harmonics in all and each time there’s an added harmonic, you get a line. So the second harmonic connects two points on the circle, the third harmonic three points on the circle, the fourth four, and so on up to 64. And you hear each of those harmonics as well. This goes back to ideas of Plato and the Music of the Spheres. So all this stuff started intertwining conceptually and visually—I don’t have a thesis about it, but there seem to be a lot of relationships with these spherical patterns that we use in science and religion and now music as well. You start to connect all these dots together and offer that to the viewer as an experience, as part of the meditation.
Scope: Given all that, is it fair to consider The End of Time a meditation object?
Mettler: That was true for me at the outset. It was all it really could be. I couldn’t say anything definitive about time—you just can’t. So many people have theorized about it already, and like I said, that wasn’t my objective. So it really is a meditation on time using the time machine that is cinema.
Scope: How did you get interested in Richie Hawtin? He’s a big presence here due both to the Plastikman tracks on the soundtrack and his relationship with Detroit, one of your primary sites of exploration.
Mettler: I’d talked to him a couple of times before. I find there’s a cinematic character to his work, less so in Plastikman than in some of the remixing stuff he does with other people’s music. It has a real sense of arc and journey and I was really attracted to that. I initially sought him out because I wanted to try my live visual mixing software with him. In the meantime he became a superstar. I had also been developing software with Greg Hermanovic, whose company was responsible for the visual systems that accompany Plastikman in the scene you see. Plus, I was already interested in shooting in Detroit and at a certain point it became clear that we could cross Richie and these communities in Detroit. My reason for bringing techno into the film was that it was born in Detroit, so it was kind of born in the ruins of this industrial age. Techno is emblematic of the digital age, so it’s interesting to see this digital form come out of this wasteland of the industrial age. At the same time, we see how nature is taking over these structures again as these young new communities buy out entire blocks and plant gardens and create an alternative for who knows how long. All that is very visible in Detroit—you see it walking the streets.
Scope: Another fascinating figure is the man we see in Hawaii living in the last house in a community that’s otherwise been destroyed by lava flows from the Kilauea volcano. How did your quest lead to him?
Mettler: That was something I heard about when I was there. I was drawn to the lava and the effects of the magma. It’s amazing because you can see fresh flows and how they burn through forests and how they’ve covered up structures. All you see is the remnants of metals because they don’t burn—you’ll see a submerged bus, for instance. So I was on this exploratory trek for weeks, though the lava flows I’d wanted to see had basically turned off for the first time in years just as I arrived! This fellow Jack Thompson had become a kind of legend around there. His house was part of a suburban colony on the Big Island. There’d been a bridge built behind it so the lava would always go around; this went on for years and years. Everybody else left, and he was there by himself, cut off with no roads. He used to ride his motorcycle over the lava a few miles to the last road. Then he hitchhiked with helicopters. It was crazy, and it’s such an amazing spot. But a few months ago, the lava finally took his house. It was too bad because you do want to root for him.
Scope: Given that so much of the film presents people and places in a manner that is relatively concrete, was it a difficult decision to send viewers off into the more abstract space in the Mixxa sequence?
Mettler: It’s funny because a lot of the creative pathways of making this kind of work are really the result of this organic approach—it’s a matter of pursuing how things unfold and pursuing experiences. In a way, it’s about paying attention to where the path of least resistance takes you. It’s like what happened with Petropolis and the tar sands: there’s something being offered to you, and you may not understand it, but you look at it and then you go, “Oh, this is connecting to something else.” Or else you’re applying what you’re interested in already and make the two connect: you have that lens on. In terms of how Mixxa happened, I had been doing these performances and developing this software quite intensely for the last several years. Performing like this is an improvisational experience in a similar way that a musician plays their instrument with other people. There was an offer to do a live show in Paris with two of the musicians I work with, Gabriel Scotti and Vincent Haenni. Since I was in the middle of editing, I thought, “OK, I’m going to make this part of the film, then. I’m going to use film material and they’re going to use sounds related to the film and we’re going to improvise totally.” So it began with us improvising for this show. Then I started working with a recording of it and it became part of the film. None of the imagery from the performance is in there any more, though some of the sound is. It was reworked over another year before it became what it was.
Scope: It still has traces of that original spontaneity, which is an unusual quality for any film given how labourious and meticulous the editing process tends to be. Did it feel liberating to use the software to do this real-time version of what typically takes months or years of very finicky work?
Mettler: It does. And that’s something almost all of the other arts have been able to do. In dance, you can have your choreography but say, “OK, today let’s just go.” It’s the same with music or even writing, when you do associative or free writing. In film, it’s quite hard to do that. You can do it with a camera to a degree because you’re responding to what’s unfolding, but in editing it’s such a slow and cantankerous process of move/edit/cut. You can get into a trance and do it, but it’s very hard to do in real time unless you use this kind of software.
Scope: So in a sense, Mixxa is not only the point at which the viewer’s perception of time finally dissolves. It’s also a really cool software demo.
Mettler: Yeah, right! But I’m pretty convinced also that this is at least one avenue that expressions of image and sound are going to go down, or are already going down. This technology will create those kinds of experiences. We’ve always been able to superimpose images, but in very different ways to what you can do now digitally and performatively. Being able to do this in real time is a very recent development, to actually be able to “perform” one image by laying it over another and another and play it all like music. So the technology plays a big part in creating a connection between the expression and our perception.


All Things Must Pass

Peter Mettler’s “The End of Time”

Top: U.S. Airman Joe Kittinger falling through space. Above: Bodhgaya, India. Courtesy of Grimthorpe Film and Mongrel Media.
“I don’t gravitate towards dark things,” says Peter Mettler. It’s an appropriate statement coming from a director who once made a film called Picture of Light. In Mettler’s cinema, as in Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, everything is illuminated, whether it’s the aurora borealis over northern Manitoba in Picture of Light, the racing lights of Pearson International Airport in his epic Gambling, Gods and LSD (2003) or, in Petropolis (2009), the elevated perspectives on the Alberta tar sands, which have their own scary clarity. It’s a critical cliché to say that certain filmmakers have a vision, but in Mettler’s case, the work is defined largely by vision. It’s the curious, roving gaze of an artist who has learned to believe his own eyes.
It’s unsurprising, then, that Mettler’s new film The End of Time, which made its world premiere at the Locarno International Film Festival before touching down at TIFF, contains a handful of indelible shots. There’s vintage 16-mm footage of U.S. Airman Joseph Kittinger falling towards earth from a height of 102,000 feet (an effort that transcends the prosaic designation of Guinness World Record); a fleet of ants swarming the corpse of a grasshopper before bearing it away in an eerie miniature simulacrum of a funeral ceremony; or a wall of lava slowly encroaching on a single plant, which stands out in sharp green relief against the ash until being violently absorbed.
“That was one of the moments when I felt a lot of clarity about my subject,” says Mettler of this remarkable shot, which might be The End of Time’s signature image. “It was when I had a one-to-one relationship to nature. When I was just sitting there watching something happen.”
This motif of visible change underwrites the entire film. The End of Time is not a metaphor. Mettler’s globe-trotting cine-essay is quite literally about time: as an abstract concept, as a metaphysical construct and as a physical reality. Hence the overture featuring Kittinger’s historical plunge. When asked about what it was like to fall from such a great height, the decorated daredevil said it felt like time was slowing down as he was speeding—a contradiction that briefly rendered him a living, breathing avatar for the theory of relativity. But how does an artist who doesn’t have a hot air balloon to drop himself from get a firm handle on something so incredibly ineffable? How do you make a movie about time?
Mettler may be on a short list with Werner Herzog, Chris Marker and his hero, the late Dutch master Johann van der Keuken, as filmmakers who could get away with saying that they’ve seen it all, or at least, way more than most. Still, there’s a tentative quality to the early moments of The End of Time, which suggests that this habitually adventurous director is agonizing over finding the right angle of approach. This sensation squares with Mettler’s own admission that the film found its form on the fly. “Some projects have definite events that spark their beginnings,” he says. “I think that The End of Time was more like a series of musings and meditations that slowly crystallized together.”
Mettler may not have started with a “Eureka!” moment but the film’s first extended passage is about the attempt to re-create a kind of Big Bang. Returning to his native Switzerland, Mettler takes his camera deep underground into the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, home to the Large Hadron Collider, an integral part of CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). It’s an environment out of a James Bond movie, all blinking tunnels and scurrying people in lab coats, and yet Mettler says he was surprised at how easily he was able to gain access.
“We contacted them to talk about the film and see what was possible. I gave them some DVDs of Gambling, Gods and LSD as well. They said that we should come as soon as possible. Once [the machines start] it’s a death zone, nobody goes down there for years. But they encouraged me to come take a look.” Mettler’s camera captures the space with equal measures of awe and irreverence. The technology is amazing, but it’s also so flat and colour-coded that it looks like the world’s largest and most expensive Lego playset.
The CERN sequence is crucial in establishing certain motifs in The End of Time, including the alternation between Mettler’s own typically poetic voice-over and the almost choral arrangement of his interview subjects, who are never identified by name. Nor does Mettler mark the jumps between different geographical locations with datelines. This is possibly an attempt to give the material a sense of timelessness, to square with a piece of Mettler’s narration that insists that “you don’t always have to know the name of what you see…It doesn’t matter what time it is.”
Whatever the rationale, it’s a daring choice that gives The End of Time a deceptively drifting quality that belies its savvy organization. For instance, the CERN material is almost overwhelmingly heady, with lots of jargon and big-picture theorizing. It’s also the last time that Mettler privileges an explicitly scientific perspective. He leaves the subterranean geniuses just as they’re celebrating a major breakthrough, complete with popped champagne bottles. More power to ’em, surely, but Mettler is more drawn to people with a layman’s interest in his theme, folks who are less interested in unravelling the fabric of the universe than in getting comfortably wrapped up inside.

Director Peter Mettler. Courtesy of Grimthorpe Film and Mongrel Media.
These include Jack Thompson, hardy loner who makes his home in Hawaii amid those aforementioned photogenic lava flows. (It’s a coincidence that Thompson also figures in another of the year’s other mesmerizing documentaries, Victor Kossakovsky’s Hot Docs hit Vivan las Antipodas, a movie that Mettler hasn’t seen but would probably love.) Like any new homeowner, Thompson’s main motivators were location, location, location. He dropped out of the working world to get a better view of geological processes as old as the Earth itself. “I was putting in the last window when it all started,” he says of the gradual but spectacularly violent upheavals around him, which turn the ground into molten tableaux out of an H.R. Giger catalogue. “And I’ve had a front-row seat ever since. I’m still here because I haven’t gotten in the way.”
This combination of being enraptured and cautious informed Mettler’s modus operandi during his time in the Aloha State. Lugging a camera around a volcano is a Herzogian feat of will, but it’s also a little bit dangerous. “Actually it’s relatively safe,” insists Mettler. “I’d never been on a volcano before. Somebody took me out in the middle of the night, total darkness, and there’s this orange glow but you don’t know how far away it is. It turned out that it was miles out. You’re walking with a headlamp over this crusty surface, which as you see in the film looks like bones and bodies or monsters—very unnerving. There are heat zones underneath, hot lava moving along. The sun came up and that’s when we shot.”
Mettler contrasts Thompson’s dogged determination to live in a simmering, prehistoric landscape with a community-building project in an even more spectacularly dilapidated landscape: Detroit. Paul Verhoeven’s delirious urban satire Robocop (1987) prophesied that Motor City would be a burned-out husk by 2019, but Mettler’s film shows that it’s actually proceeding ahead of schedule. Stark images of ruined buildings describe a metropolis gone to seed.
“It was the idea of epoch” that attracted Mettler to Detroit. “I was attracted to it for that visual change, for the collapse and decay and the fact that nature is still very present and how it takes over.” Talk that a filmmaker should try to adapt Alan Weisman’s 2007 best-seller The World Without Us, an alternately dispassionate and lyrically terrifying thought experiment imagining Earth sans humans, can cease. Unofficially, Mettler has accomplished it here in a haunting vision of Western civilization overrun and overgrown.
“I see Detroit as emblematic of American society,” says one ardent young voice on the soundtrack. “Like if the whole plan had worked out, it would still be prosperous here.” The voice belongs to one of a group of young people who’ve decamped to this soggy suburban section of the city to try to kick-start it. We see him and a few others moving through the empty houses, trying to touch them up. Instead of Occupying Wall Street, they’re trying to inhabit a ghost town wasting away in its shadow.
Whether Mettler views the kids’ quest as quixotic or sees them as bohemian opportunists taking advantage of non-existent property values doesn’t matter. It’s probably not the latter but the director has always been reluctant to invite political readings of his work. “I’m not a big fan of didacticism,” he says. “The truth always lies in a complex set of circumstances. That’s what I try to show. When I was working with Greenpeace on Petropolis, that was the first thing we discussed, that I didn’t want to make a piece of agitprop.”
Mettler does show his counterculture bona fides in another Detroit-set strand about Richie Hawtin, a.k.a. Plastikman, the innovative electronic musician and DJ who helped kickstart the city’s burgeoning techno scene in the early 1990s. “Techno had its birth [in Detroit], and techno suggests another era altogether,” says Mettler. “It’s like a digital age and a digital logic, and I thought that this plus the sense of collapse and decay were fascinating together.” And indeed, the juxtaposition of silent, dilapidated spaces and surging crowds dancing their hearts out to Hawtin’s sound-and-light assault creates a powerful sensation.
In moments like these it’s worth asking whether The End of Time is, strictly speaking, a documentary. It’s a work of non-fiction but it also has extended passages of pure visual and aural expression that are perhaps closer to experimental cinema (specifically the trance film). “Cinema is sound and image,” says Mettler. “Those things are present whether it’s documentary or drama. I try not to separate those genres. The reason I get filed under documentary is for practical reasons, for funding reasons, for certain festivals to show the work. But I think the last few films I’ve done are all hybrids in a way.”
Whatever The End of Time is, it took a lot of work to get it that way. Mettler estimates that he’s been labouring on it for five years, including two years of editing (Mettler cut the film himself along with Roland Schlimme). “I was relieved to get through it,” he sighs. “I think it’s the most difficult film that I’ve made, because of the topic.” He also thinks that in some ways, The End of Time is his “most personal movie,” although he knows that choice of words carries some questionable connotations (i.e., does that mean that his other movies are somehow impersonal?).
“I think one of the arcs of this particular experience was that it became about mortality—an awareness of my own mortality,” says Mettler. “It’s personal in a very specific sort of way. When I made Gambling, Gods and LSD I was going out in search of transcendence, going beyond and escaping things. Now the question is more, ‘Well, where am I going?’”
It’s a poetic touch that for this particular journey, all roads lead home. The End of Time concludes with an offhandedly lovely sequence filmed in Toronto at Mettler’s parents’ house. “It was Mother’s Day,” he recalls, “and I went over with the camera to show them how I work, this tool that I use. It was a chance circumstance. We started talking about time and I went into interviewer mode with my own mother. It was very touching. It was a complete surprise. In editing, piecing together different ideas, I tried the piece with her and it works. Initially, it was the beginning of the film.”
Without spoiling the scene’s content, it’s enough to say that Mettler’s mother inadvertently provides her son with a perfect grace note that completes the film’s move from an abstract realm to an emotional one. They’re words of wisdom that it takes a lifetime to arrive at, yet feel (like so much else in this movie) serenely timeless. The End of Time is not a light film by any means. It’s hugely scaled and stately in its pacing, and at times seems to be trying to break the viewer’s brain either through complex concepts or sheer sensory overload.
And yet for all its intimations of impermanence—which is no more than a poetic word for death—it’s not exactly dark, either. It exists in the twilight zone that is home to much of the best non-fiction filmmaking: at once rousing and sobering, baffling and precise, epic and intimate. “I always try to make it clear that what I’m doing is subjective,” says Mettler. “And what I’m offering you, then, is poetry.” With that it mind, it might be best to cite Walt Whitman, no stranger himself to poetic treatises on the passing of time, and say that Mettler’s movie contains multitudes.

Peter Mettler’s ‘The End of Time’ is the ultimate trip

CERN particle accelerator in Switzerland, from 'The End of Time' / courtesy Grimthorpe Fiilm
When critics, including this one, swooned over Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life last year, much of what held us enthralled was the film’s rhapsodic images of nature and the cosmos. Malick took us on the kind of transcendental trip that has its roots in 2001: A Space Odyssey—whose director of special effects, Douglas Trumbull contributed to The Tree of Life. Well, no director does trippy transcendentalism better than Canada’s Peter Mettler, who has pushed the cosmic envelope in movies ranging from Picture of Light (1994) to Gambling, Gods and LSD (2002).
Mettler’s latest and most ambitious picture, The End of Time,  is a documentary inquiry into the primal essence of what makes us tick. Its subject is time. And as if that were not a vast enough topic for a film that clocks in at just under two hours, right off the bat he brings Einstein into the equation and explains that any film about time is necessarily a film about space. The result is a film about Everything. A plot-less 2012: A Space-Time Odyssey. To call it a documentary is misleading. Mettler does not “document”; he’s one of those filmmakers who goes out into the field with the earnest intent of photographing the eye of God, whether in the cardiac-red glow of lava breaking through the Earth’s fresh-baded crust, or in the drama of a dead lime-green grasshopper being hustled off a blood-red leaf by black ant pallbearers. Cosmomentary would be a more appropriate name for the genre Mettler is pioneering.

Maple leaf in 'The End of Time' / courtesy Grimthorpe Film
The director’s planetary quest takes him from the gargantuan technology of chasing sub-atomic particles in Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider to mountaintop telescopes that gaze billions of years into the past. But the most mesmerizing sequences are meditations on earthly phenomena of decay and rebirth visible to the naked eye. They include lava flows that have engulfed all but one home on the Big Island of Hawaii, a Hindu cremation near the ancient tree where the Buddha attained enlightenment, and the rotting carcasses of abandoned houses and factories in Detroit. Along the way, humans crop up to offer ideas and reflections on the nature of time, including the director, who offers a sporadic voice-over, but on this metaphysical mission, the voices are mere mantra grace-notes: Mettler’s camera is the more powerful and articulate inquisitor.
The extraordinary images in The End of Time bear a casual resemblance to the beauty shots in a National Geographic documentary, but Mettler is operating on another planet. He shoots with an implicit intelligence that seems to get inside the spectacle he’s observing.  He’s always finding abstract, creature-like forms in skies and landscape, as if he’s hot on the scent of animist spirits. Rocks aren’t just rocks; clouds aren’t just clouds. And the courage to hallucinate via the lens is what makes his work unique. In a movie that is about time, he patiently lets a shot develop over time, past the point at which most filmmakers would cut. He treats his own film like a living organism.
Take the lava flows. I’ve seen footage of lava flows in countless nature documentaries. But I’ve never seen anything like those in The End of Time. As the camera tracks serpentine coils of magma crust slowly crawl and buckle, opening up the earth’s blood-orange anatomy, there’s an eerie and riveting suspense. As if we’re watching the Earth give birth, looking for all the world like an alien beast undergoing some Cronenbergian transformation of the flesh. To cut away from the shot too soon would be a crime: we’re seeing the Earth move—and dying to find out what happens next.
But Mettler takes his visuals beyond representation. The director is in the forefront of a new genre that involves mixing images much the way deejays mix sounds and beats, dissolving multiple frames to create fresh, unified designs. Enabled with digital dexterity, this art of choreographing images into abstract impressionism is a turbo-charged advance on traditional methods of collage and montage. At one point, Mettler morphs the geometry of the Hadron Collider into a dazzling sequence of animated mandalas. So in the end, he’s photographing not just what the camera sees, but neural patterns that the brain creates, and feels. And in a film that leaves the last word on time to his own aging mother, Mettler’s cosmic exploration comes full circle, from imitations of infinity to the most personal affections.

Lava flow, Hawaii in 'The End of Time' / courtesy Grimthorpe Film.

Picture of Light (1994, 83 minutes)

Excerpt 1: Picture of Light

We live in a time where things do not seem to exist if they are not captured as an image.
But if you look into darkness you may see the lights of your own retina -- not unlike the Northern Lights, not unlike the movements of thought. Like a shapeless accumulation of everything we have ever seen.
Before science explained, the Northern Lights were interpreted as visions, prophecies, spirits -- a trigger for the imagination -- images provided by nature framed by no less than the universe itself.
...aurora borealis...the lights with no bodies, pouring colours from the sky...a film exploring the capture of images from nature, images more special than any special effect...

Excerpt 2: Picture of Light
Picture of Light takes the approach of a poetical essay documenting the search for a natural wonder; the mysterious Aurora Borealis. It's incorporeal lights and colours pouring from the sky lure a small film team of six to Canada's arctic. After strenuous and complicated technical preparations - among other things, the camera had to be protected against temperatures dropping to minus 40˚ Celsius - and with 50 pounds of batteries in their luggage, they set out on a 3000-mile train journey through practically uninhabited snowy landscapes to the end of the civilized world - Churchill, Manitoba.
Violent snowstorms force the crew to settle down to a long wait for a clear night in which the  Northern Lights may appear. Soon the TV set gains importance as the only link between the inhabitants of Churchill and the outside world. While waiting villagers are interviewed about  their life under the Northern Lights: the Croatian hotel owner hardly takes any notice of them; the priest is reminded of the searchlights during World War II; an old man speaks of the lights hypnotizing effect and remembers that people used to tell the weather forecast by them; another enthuses over the beauty of their colours. A member of Space Lab 3 reports live from outer space about his scientific observations of the polar lights, explaining the effects of their enormous sources of energy on the earth's magnetosphere. Mettler himself gives a diary-like voice-over of the events, augmenting the film images with background information, anecdotes and Inuit legends; at the same time questioning the act and responsibility of creating filmic representations of this natural phenomenon.
Over the course of a one-year editing process, the film gradually took shape out of the 18 hours of film material collected during two trips to Churchill. The lights could only be made visible by shooting three frames per minute and later expanding time on the optical printer. Mettler was aware that the images presented to the audience would suggest a reality completely different from the actual experience. Already during the long and cold nights in Churchill, Mettler had questioned the impulse to collect images. Not least for this reason, in Picture of Light he decided for the first time to make use of the voice-over; with which he self-critically tests the powerful potential and authority of the 'invisible' voice.
Picture of Light like his earlier films, deals with the tension between nature and technology, science and mythology. It reflects the desire to track down a wonder and to capture it on film, questioning ways in which experience molded by the media increasingly threaten to replace our individual and authentic experiences.

“The result of Mettler’s struggle with the elements is PICTURE OF LIGHT. It’s one of the most provocative and mesmerizing works at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.”
 Craig Macinnis, THE TORONTO STAR
“PICTURE OF LIGHT has the narrative innovation and esthetic brilliance of a good drama. Hypnotic displays  of the aurora borealis...are the gold at the end of Mettler’s rainbow, but getting there is more than half the fun. The film is an existential meditation on snow and space and cold, undercut by an absurdist wit... Mettler goes to a world where cameras freeze and tries to film nothingness, unbroken patterns of land and sky. He achieves amazing results. In the context of Canadian cinema, where characters often live in uneasy tension with their environment, for once there is no contest: the weather wins, hands down.”
– Brian D. Johnson, MACLEAN’S MAGAZINE
“PICTURE OF LIGHT is luminous and genuinely transcendent...”
“Taking a tiny crew to study the aurora borealis from the chilly vantage point of Churchill, Manitoba...has resulted in one of the most original and breathtaking documentaries of the year. Neither conventional nor experimental, PICTURE OF LIGHT compels on a multitude of levels...where one of this country’s most immaculate image-makers, points his camera toward the most spectacular special effect the natural world has to offer, and brings back a piece of heaven. Highly recommended.”
– Geoff Pevere, THE GLOBE & MAIL
“An extraordinary piece of filmmaking. In an era when only one movie in a hundred has a single moment of visionary power, Peter Mettler’s PICTURE OF LIGHT is bursting with them..this is a film that takes you places you have never been.”
– John Powers, VOGUE critic
“PICTURE OF LIGHT has the narrative innovation and esthetic brilliance of a good drama. Hypnotic displays of the aurora borealis...are the gold at the end of Mettler’s rainbow, but getting there is more than half the fun. The film is an existential meditation on snow and space and cold, undercut by an absurdist wit...Mettler goes to a world where cameras freeze and tries to film nothingness, unbroken patterns of land and sky. He achieves amazing results...”
– Brian D. Johnson, MACLEAN’S MAGAZINE
"...you sense you're watching a new art form in the process of creation...among the very best documentaries to come along in years...PICTURE OF LIGHT is an elegantly framed lyric by Peter Mettler about the North and the northern lights. At the very outset, the director hints there's deeper music to be heard here by introducing us to a camera designed especially for the deep cold. Spurred on by thoughts of a man he met at a part "who watches the shy", Mettler's PICTURE OF LIGHT is as much a meditation on documentary filmmaking as it is on the North."
– Peter Goddard, THE TORONTO STAR
"PICTURE OF LIGHT is the most beautiful fusion of art and science I've seen since Michael Snow's La Région Centrale."
– Jonathan Rosenbaum, CHICAGO READER critic
"PICTURE OF LIGHT confronts the ontological status of film, brandishing profundity, humour and many extraordinarily beautiful images, concluding finally that film's relationship to reality and experience is, in the best cases, rather like all of life's Big Questions -- puzzling, troubling, awe-inspiring."
– Peter Urquhart, REVERSE SHOT
"Personal, quirky, inquisitive and visually sophisticated, PICTURE OF LIGHT is Canadian writer/director Peter Mettler's investigative meditation on the aurora borealis -- the northern lights."
"With his masterful new film about the aurora borealis, PICTURE OF LIGHT,  a breathtaking investigation of the powers and limits of film language, Mettler should assume his rightful, prominent place in contemporary Canadian cinema...From its title onward, PICTURE OF LIGHT articulates the paradox of the extraordinary film unspooling before us. In a voice over that at once affirms and questions its authoritative role in the documentary tradition, Mettler reminds us that his tools are inadequate and falsifying. We know he is right. We also know, as he does, that these picture of light, these simulacra, do inspire wonder, do remind us that for all our scientific marvels and technological advances, we remain unfinished and searching. In its meditative, marvelous simplicity, PICTURE OF LIGHT unmasks its frames, and demands that we look beyond them."
– Tom McSorley, TAKE ONE
“Mettler is slowly but surely affirming his presence as one of the most original cineastes of his generation. He is an auteur of the utmost importance…his adventurous cinema displays the veritable images of today.”
– Norbert Cruetz, JOURNAL DE GENEVE
“Like the curtains of light, like a thousand fractured searchlights in the night sky, like a halogen haze, like a neon fog, like… Peter Mettler’s camera has accelerated the meteorological phenomena; out of the majestic glow develops a squirrly light of insanity… an impression of endlessness, of no borders, of flight and the immaterial.”
– Martin Schaub, DAS MAGAZIN, ZURICH
“[Mettler makes] films that work with insinuation, films that speak to the heart of the viewer, to their memories and dreams by addressing their emotions and senses.”

“Mettler points at the world… engaging us in poetry and imagination… Like the first gestures of cinema, he is always perceiving the world as an object of endless fascination… Peter Mettler dreams with his eyes open, and in wanting to convey the elusive aurora borealis, he takes measure of the infinite as no camera has ever done before…”

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