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, its 6:30
am in Toronto, and 12:30 pm in Switzerland, Mettlers other home.
Weve both just gotten up. Its the eve of Zurichs 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 Mettlers 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 Mettlers organic and hallucinatory oeuvre.
His career began auspiciously with Scissere (1982), a feature film
made while Mettler was a student at Torontos Ryerson Polytechnic
Institute. Based on Mettlers experiences during a one-year stay
as an observer at a Swiss rehab clinic, its an impressive piece
of work, which sees many of the filmmakers 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 Mettlers 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 Mettlers 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 protagonists
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 Mettlers many fruitful collaborations
with avant-garde musician Fred Frith.
Mettler next teamed up with the titanic Robert Lepage, adapting the latters
theatre project, Tectonic Plates (1992), a mutable international
and interhistorical tale of romance, art, genealogy, and geology. Exceedingly
ambitious, it might be Mettlers 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 Pandoras 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, Mettlers
film was entrancing, a reminder of how the movie theatre was once considered,
for many people, akin to a place of worship.
If Mettlers work occasionally recalls Tarkovsky, Herzog, Marker,
or even Godfrey Reggio, hes 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
, Family Viewing ), McDonald (Knock! Knock!
), and Rozema (Passion: A Letter in 35mm ). 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
In Mettlers 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 werent 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 wifes 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 films rhythms are seductive, and the
trip long and bizarre.
"Its 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 ones 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 Mettlers
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. Its been eight years since Picture
of Light. Have you been working on Gambling, Gods and LSD the
METTLER: Basically. I mean, theres been other stuff here and there,
but raising the money took a really, really long time because the film
had no predetermined structure. We couldnt 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. Ive
never experienced anything like it; its the equivalent of my entire
film school education, sitting in one room, day and night. But it was
a very interesting and profound experience. Its been a really long
time, but it doesnt 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. Theyre 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. Id 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 its finished, for other
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 its really hard
to move around there on your own.
SCOPE: Its an extraordinary way of constructing
METTLER: Yeah, its kind of outrageous. The whole film has, for sure,
been the hardest, most challenging, most exhausting thing Ive 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 didnt want to give each medium its own definition. You
know, like black-and-white means dream sort of thing; I really didnt
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, its usually
film. When its a situation where you want to be unobtrusive, or
catching something in the flow as it happens, video is much better for
SCOPE: There must be a lot of footage that didnt make it into the
film. Do you have plans for that, shaping it into something else, or would
you even want to?
METTLER: Yeah, Id like to. The first assembly was 55 hours long,
and that was using what I felt was all good, usable material, with no
repetition. Its all such very different subject matter, thats
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
Id like to do something with that other material; I think theres
potential to do a kind of series. And Ive 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. Ive been doing it together
with Fred Frith; its a complete improvisation where hes doing
the music, Im doing the images, and we create a film. Its
very exciting. And thats what Im doing tomorrow in Zurich,
at the Street Parade, where a million people just come and dance. Im
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 youre doing that
in these live performances, but could you speak of this film in musical
METTLER: Yeah, I think that, like all my films, its an audio-visual
composition. And within that audio-visual composition youre still
working like you do in music as well with narrative lines,
only on an emotional level. And in Gambling, Gods and LSD Im
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 ORourke 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, theres
such a build to that sequence, both aurally and visually; its so
remarkably cut and composed. Theres 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. Youre completely captivated.
METTLER: Its 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, its 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, its 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 theres
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 didnt 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?
SCOPE: Watching a film as well?
METTLER: Some films. [laughs] I mean many films themselves are diseased,
its 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 theres
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 youre addressing to the gentleman youre interviewing
are audible. Were those the questions you asked other interview subjects
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 youre 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 theres
just a couple threads left of that strain.
SCOPE: Ill turn one of your questions on you. What are you afraid
METTLER: Im not a very fearful person. I could be afraid of losing
my mind or becoming depressive, but its not a real fear because
I dont feel like thats 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 youre looking for?
METTLER: Its so funny because when you ask that its like pushing
a button. I hear about a hundred different answers, things people have
told me. Thats 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 youre 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 Ive found what Im
SCOPE: Do you think youll continue to make films
in this way?
METTLER: Thats a good question. Its been so intense. Im
just coming out of it right now. My reaction is to do this live performance
because its so different a kind of release or cleansing.
It happens on the spot, theres people and their immediate interaction.
Theres 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 dont
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.