Betting on Transcendence: Peter Mettler on Gambling, Gods and LSD
by Jason McBride for CINEMASCOPE, Sept 2002

When I finally manage to get Peter Mettler on the phone, it’s 6:30 am in Toronto, and 12:30 pm in Switzerland, Mettler’s other home. We’ve both just gotten up. It’s the eve of Zurich’s notorious Street Parade, a 48-hour debauch where the normally pristine city is turned upside down, becoming the techno and house capital of Europe. It would surprise no fan of Mettler’s work to find the filmmaker at such an event. And, in fact, Mettler is in Zurich partly to produce a series of live, improvised performance pieces derived from outtakes from his newest film, Gambling, Gods and LSD. Live film: an oxymoron that perfectly sums up Mettler’s organic and hallucinatory oeuvre.

His career began auspiciously with Scissere (1982), a feature film made while Mettler was a student at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnic Institute. Based on Mettler’s experiences during a one-year stay as an observer at a Swiss rehab clinic, it’s an impressive piece of work, which sees many of the filmmaker’s preoccupations already firmly in place: the commingling of fiction and fact, the elusiveness of identity, the will to derangement. Formally, as well, the film is audacious, shifting from the abstract to the representational, and combining three distinct but complementary narrative threads: a junkie thief, a young mother on the town, and an entomologist discovering a rare moth. His next film, the 58-minute Eastern Avenue (1985) operates as a more familiar diary film or travelogue (moving from Switzerland to Berlin to Portugal), but it too was borne of an impulse to spontaneously record the world as it comes, a collection of aural and visual impressions intuitively gathered and subsequently shaped only by their own chronology.

This impressionistic bent found its way into Mettler’s first foray into more traditional feature filmmaking. The Top of His Head (1989), produced by Rhombus Media (and costing about 120 times as much as Scissere), tells the story of a satellite-dish salesman whose rational and security-obsessed life is upended by a mysterious performance artist. It provides an apt metaphor for Mettler’s own relationship with commercial filmmaking: the shamanistic visionary whose imagination cannot be contained by the strictures of the marketplace. Despite its more conventional storyline, Mettler strives to represent his protagonist’s increasingly fractured inner life, creating something that feels like the cinematic equivalent of a fugue state. Adding to this effect is a complicated soundtrack, consisting of fragments of pop songs blended with effects and found sounds, the first of Mettler’s many fruitful collaborations with avant-garde musician Fred Frith.

Mettler next teamed up with the titanic Robert Lepage, adapting the latter’s theatre project, Tectonic Plates (1992), a mutable international and interhistorical tale of romance, art, genealogy, and geology. Exceedingly ambitious, it might be Mettler’s least successful film, its shape shifting elements too overdetermined and its artifice at odds with the more intimate inner travels that Mettler explores so precisely. Two years later, however, Mettler returned with the dazzling Picture of Light (1994), a poetic essay on the Northern Lights. Mettler encountered all manners of hardship (-40° temperatures, endless train travel, the sheer technical difficulty of recording the Aurora Borealis) and, more importantly, a Pandora’s box of cinematic-philosophical inquiry. Asking questions like How to represent the natural world? What is the difference between the night sky and the silver screen?, Mettler rigorously explores the age-old conundrum – experience versus simulacra – in a way that feels wholly new. Like the lights themselves, Mettler’s film was entrancing, a reminder of how the movie theatre was once considered, for many people, akin to a place of worship.

If Mettler’s work occasionally recalls Tarkovsky, Herzog, Marker, or even Godfrey Reggio, he’s a uniquely schizophrenic figure in Canadian cinema. A Swiss-Canadian, he shuttles easily between the two countries and their various languages. His fiction films veer away from dramatic imperatives, and his documentaries are flush with imaginative possibility. He shoots both his own films and has served as cinematographer for many of the so-called Ontario New Wave directors: Egoyan (Next of Kin [1984], Family Viewing [1987]), McDonald (Knock! Knock! [1985]), and Rozema (Passion: A Letter in 35mm [1985]). Gambling, Gods and LSD finds him even more fractured still, on a journey to the four corners of the world but also into the most profound recesses of the human spirit – his own included. Mettler spent a year-and-a-half on the road, gathering footage in Toronto, Las Vegas, Switzerland, and India. A more disparate set of locations would be hard to imagine, but Mettler draws our attention to what these places – and their people – share.

In Mettler’s film, this is a desire to attain transcendence, sometimes depicted as a type of mass hysteria, or a way to both live in the world and leave it behind. Mettler shows us so many spectacular things, that if it weren’t for the ruminative pace, one could easily be overwhelmed. Writhing fundamentalists in a Canadian convention centre. Abandoned, fossilized, automobiles in a Monument Valley that not even John Ford would recognize. A man revealing his dead wife’s bones, wrapped in the scarf she wore during chemotherapy treatments. The slo-mo shedding of a tear in a Bollywood film, accompanied by the comforting clang of a cowbell. This is a film populated with drug addicts, bungee-jumping wedding couples, racing poodles, and the giggling members of the Bombay Laughing Club. The sky is always etched with contrails. The film’s rhythms are seductive, and the trip long and bizarre.

"It’s strange how things work in cycles,” Mettler intones early in Gambling, Gods and LSD, in one of the sparest voiceovers ever recorded. And this is exactly how the film works, spiraling back on itself, finding precise and absurd connections between completely different cultures and communities. It forms a living, breathing organism in which every part relates to the other. Things literally dissolve into other things: a leaf-dappled river into blips on a radar screen, a waterfall into a rave. Mettler never explains his images, as each one’s significance exists entirely in relation to the images that surround it – often in ironic, playful counterpoint. When an off-screen interviewee asks him what the film means, an insane chatter of insects swallows up Mettler’s response. When discussing his film, however, he is clear and pointed, buoyed by his enthusiasm for Gambling, Gods and LSD and his avaricious interest in the world it tries to contain.

SCOPE: Audiences have been looking for a new film from you for quite some time. It’s been eight years since Picture of Light. Have you been working on Gambling, Gods and LSD the entire time?

METTLER: Basically. I mean, there’s been other stuff here and there, but raising the money took a really, really long time because the film had no predetermined structure. We couldn’t sell it as something previsualized, we had to sell it as a process. And that was tricky. The shooting took over a year and a half, intermittently, and the editing took three to four years. It was the most amazing time blur. I’ve never experienced anything like it; it’s the equivalent of my entire film school education, sitting in one room, day and night. But it was a very interesting and profound experience. It’s been a really long time, but it doesn’t feel like it.

SCOPE: Transcendence, for lack of a better word, would seem to be one unifying theme in the film. Did you set out to gather footage specifically on this theme, or did the material suggest the theme?

METTLER: The way I approached it was to come up with, through my own life experience, four essential themes that I tuned my responses with: transcendence, denial of death, illusion of safety, and relationship to nature. Those were my working filters. They’re never concretely addressed in the film; you never hear those actual words. They were my thematic orientation. And with them, I visited four culturally distinct places. I’d researched those places in advance, looking for certain keys that I might want to explore, to get me started. Then I would go to those places, and respond to what was happening, respond to the people I would meet, and make the decision on the spot whether to film something or not, whether to pursue something further. This way the film built itself through the chronology of experience. Of course, what I shot last, in India, referred back to all the other things that had happened in the previous places. And then it was a similar process in editing; the only rule really was not to break chronology because I believed that there was, contained within the experience of making the film, a logic that went far beyond what my intellect could comprehend. And I wanted to stay true to that, to see what it would reveal and what it continues to reveal, now that it’s finished, for other individuals.

SCOPE: During that year and a half, did you have a camera with you at all times?

METTLER: Well, it started in Toronto. And living in Toronto, I had all my gear there. Las Vegas and the desert area was more of a trip, it was four months where I travelled alone with film and video equipment. It was quite cumbersome travelling alone with that stuff; for a good part of it I rented a camper that I used as my home so I could move around more freely. At times, I would very quickly teach someone how to use the audio recorder so I would have another sound perspective. But I also had sound in my film camera, running parallel. So, yeah, in those four months I was constantly shooting, not necessarily every day. Later I came to Switzerland, which was similar to Toronto in that I was living here and could go out when I chose. India was like Las Vegas, a very concentrated, relatively short trip, about six weeks. And I went with two people, a camera assistant and a sound recordist, because it’s really hard to move around there on your own.

SCOPE: It’s an extraordinary way of constructing a film.

METTLER: Yeah, it’s kind of outrageous. The whole film has, for sure, been the hardest, most challenging, most exhausting thing I’ve ever undertaken. But because it was also so exhilarating and educational, I could do it. The feedback gives you the strength to keep going.

SCOPE: Did you shoot video and film interchangeably? Or was there a rationale for shooting one or the other in certain sections?

METTLER: I didn’t want to give each medium its own definition. You know, like black-and-white means dream sort of thing; I really didn’t want to do that. I had these two mediums, but the video is simply like a different lens on a film camera. In certain situations, I could carry the video camera wherever I went, and if something spontaneously happened I could react. Of course its expression is very different. Just by the way you hold it, by the fact that you can let it run for an hour on one tape. It records the world in a very different way than a film camera does. I just basically mixed the two together. Sometimes I made concrete choices, depending on the situation. Of course, sometimes when the landscape, or the texture, or the light is the most important thing, it’s usually film. When it’s a situation where you want to be unobtrusive, or catching something in the flow as it happens, video is much better for that.

SCOPE: There must be a lot of footage that didn’t make it into the film. Do you have plans for that, shaping it into something else, or would you even want to?

METTLER: Yeah, I’d like to. The first assembly was 55 hours long, and that was using what I felt was all good, usable material, with no repetition. It’s all such very different subject matter, that’s why it adds up to so much, so many people, so many different things. And when it was all put together it was that long. When we watched that – it took about a week – I had a strong feeling that this was actually the film as the truest reflection of the experience. And now how do I bring the essence of that 55 hours into something manageable? That was a big challenge, because originally we were commissioned to do something that was, maximum, two hours. We had to go back to all the television people and distributors with various demo cuts and get their continued support. Which they were happy to give. And more money, as well. But now I’d like to do something with that other material; I think there’s potential to do a kind of series. And I’ve just now recently here in Switzerland been doing live performance, which has been really a completely different way of working with the material, where I have about seven different tape machines, with different videotapes in each machine. Basically, I do a live mix, a live edit of these images. I’ve been doing it together with Fred Frith; it’s a complete improvisation where he’s doing the music, I’m doing the images, and we create a film. It’s very exciting. And that’s what I’m doing tomorrow in Zurich, at the Street Parade, where a million people just come and dance. I’m going to do it in a club for four or five hours, with different DJs, and see how that works.

SCOPE: You told me years ago that, as a filmmaker, you work very much like a musician, and obviously you’re doing that in these live performances, but could you speak of this film in musical terms?

METTLER: Yeah, I think that, like all my films, it’s an audio-visual composition. And within that audio-visual composition you’re still working – like you do in music as well – with narrative lines, only on an emotional level. And in Gambling, Gods and LSD I’m also working characters, statements, feelings, and ideas. Gambling Gods and LSD swings into quite a few different formal directions, from the ordinary interview to very associative and lyrical passages. But over the span of three hours, the ingredients seem to come in balance with themselves. And I think that balancing characteristic comes from a musical place. From a sense of musical composition as opposed to an only dramatic or informational composition.

SCOPE: The soundtrack is so obviously important. Did you work with musicians like Fred and Jim O’Rourke very early on in the process?

METTLER: Well, the way it was edited was to simultaneously build sound and picture, so the sound and picture would work off each other. And, what we talked about before, the narrative lines, the ideas, the words, the voiceover, everything was done simultaneously all the way to the end. But at picture lock, the sound concept was already really heavily in place. A lot of it came from CD material that we had reworked in the picture editing, adding our own sounds, and creating our own mixes. The musical elements often were actually sound recordings from my travels – not music in the traditional sense. It all kind of merged together. At the end, the only musician I recorded in a studio was Fred. We had two days in the studio, the film was cut, a lot of the sound was already in place, and then he basically played a bunch of things, some were specific to picture, some were just wild. We then took those things and continued the same blending process, overlaying his recordings on to themselves, cutting and shaping. We tried to create a kind of binding, thematic feeling which is very subtle.

SCOPE: There are many similarly remarkable sequences, but with the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship Church, there’s such a build to that sequence, both aurally and visually; it’s so remarkably cut and composed. There’s that gentle sing-song on the soundtrack and combined with the slow pan across these bodies writhing, laughing and crying – almost violently – the counterpoint is so seductive and effective. You’re completely captivated.

METTLER: It’s a trance. It seemed very important at the beginning of the film to have you viscerally experience the idea, as opposed to just showing a church and what its people do and believe. To try and draw you into the experience of it. I mean, it’s not the kind of place I would go to for fun, but I was completely taken in by it and really enjoyed being there. I also could very quickly draw parallels to techno-parties or trance rituals in Bali or wherever, it’s so similar. The clothes are different, the articulations are different, the projections towards what God is, or what one believes in, are different, but the fundamental feeling or urge is very similar.

SCOPE: You say at one point in the film that there’s a difference between looking and looking for something. What are you doing in this film? And if you were looking for something, did you find it?

METTLER: What I was saying there had partially to do with where I had gotten to by the time I was in India. I had seen really a lot of contrary things. But I slowly had the feeling that everything I looked at contained the things I had seen before. It didn’t matter what I looked at anymore; wherever I looked, whatever I had been looking for could be found. It struck me once again that the world – "reality”– is always seen subjectively by each one of us in an individual way, and that so often it is our own desire which blocks us from seeing things closer to what they really might be. This notion is also addressed earlier in the film by Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD, who likens the cosmos to a great transmitter, and every individual as a unique kind of receiver with their own set of antennae.

SCOPE: Do you find filmmaking to be a transcendent experience?

METTLER: Absolutely.

SCOPE: Watching a film as well?

METTLER: Some films. [laughs] I mean many films themselves are diseased, it’s a diseased medium.

SCOPE: In what way?

METTLER: Films are a reflection of our values – of our consciousness – but too often just a reflection of money, technology, and ego, entwined with marketing and consumer lifestyle ploys. But there’s always somebody who manages to break through all that, and come through with the best of what cinema can be.

SCOPE: In the sequence in the Las Vegas sex shop, the questions you’re addressing to the gentleman you’re interviewing are audible. Were those the questions you asked other interview subjects as well?

METTLER: Yeah. That was one of the only consistent strains through the shooting. I had a list of questions – you only hear a couple of them in the film – which I asked everybody. Some of them were impossible questions like "Have you ever found what you’re looking for?”, "Do you know love?”, "Do you know silence?” It became like a poem or song in a way, to repeat these questions with every person. And even though the questions were very simple, the results were often startling. One question was "Do you know the smell of burning human flesh?” I got some very surprising responses to that. But in shaping the film to its three-hour length, it was too much of an element. So there’s just a couple threads left of that strain.

SCOPE: I’ll turn one of your questions on you. What are you afraid of?

METTLER: I’m not a very fearful person. I could be afraid of losing my mind or becoming depressive, but it’s not a real fear because I don’t feel like that’s threatening me. But one of the things that really makes me sad, I guess, which is something like a fear, is seeing things being destroyed. Seeing the environment being destroyed, or seeing people being destroyed. I tell myself that is part of evolution. But it does still get to me.

SCOPE: Let me ask you another one. Have you found what you’re looking for?

METTLER: It’s so funny because when you ask that it’s like pushing a button. I hear about a hundred different answers, things people have told me. That’s part of the problem with making films, you kind of live through the experience of other people. But I would say to a large degree, yes. And of course there are always things to keep you going. Like the scientist in the film who says that if he ever found what he was looking for, it would be the end. I agree that you always create new pursuits for yourself. And what it is that you’re looking for becomes more and more sophisticated as you go on. I could say that even making this film was something I really needed to do. It was an impossible challenge, and by having done it, too a large degree I’ve found what I’m looking for.

SCOPE: Do you think you’ll continue to make films in this way?

METTLER: That’s a good question. It’s been so intense. I’m just coming out of it right now. My reaction is to do this live performance because it’s so different – a kind of release or cleansing. It happens on the spot, there’s people and their immediate interaction. There’s a real tangible experiential quality to it, as opposed to sitting in front of a computer for three years. I think I need some time to pass. But I definitely think all exploratory processes are really important and rich. It might take another form, it might not even be film, I don’t know. Film is very burdened with all kinds of machinery and bureaucracy – that makes it a real engagement with the conditions of our time – but I would like to find ways of going through the process more swiftly and have the focus on community and creativity.

Jason McBride is a Toronto-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Cinema Scope.