Nothing But Time
By José Teodoro
Swiss-Canadian filmmaker Peter Mettler leaps into the fourth dimension with The End of Time, the latest in his series of transcendental travelogues
This is how The End begins: grainy images of a man getting strapped into a suit made of strange-looking materials, with harness, helmet, and boots; the sound of a high-frequency two-tone drone and the flow of pressurized oxygen; the man is then hoisted into the heavens by a helium balloon. A title card relates how, in 1960, U.S. Air Force pilot Col. Joe Kittinger fell to Earth from some 102,800 feet. The archival footage has an eerie tranquility, with Kittinger’s protracted free fall anticipating Frank Poole’s tumble into the void in 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you’re familiar with the work of Peter Mettler, director of The End of Time, you have to assume that viewing this footage gave him a twitch of envy, that the filmmaker wished he had been up there, with cameras of his own. Mettler’s films are filled with images captured from airplanes and helicopters, and his project could be synopsized as a search for transcendence—this is an artist driven by a profound urge to get high. So it’s no wonder that The End of Time, whose origins lay in a project about clouds, begins in the stratosphere.
Mettler has forged an unlikely path, even by Canadian standards. Scissere (82), his first major work, is a narrative film that feels like an experimental piece, a collage of micro-tales of schizophrenia, addiction, study, and solitude—states of mind. It became the first student film ever to be accepted into Toronto’s Festival of Festivals (now TIFF). Mettler had yet to turn 25, but he’d made enough of an impression to earn the confidence of Canada’s chronically conservative producers and national funders and was given the go-ahead on a pair of wildly uncommercial projects. These films—The Top of His Head (89) and Tectonic Plates (92)—had scripts, actors, sets, provocative ideas about things like technology and translation, and stories that were at times deliriously difficult to follow. At the same time, Mettler was establishing precarious renown as a cinematographer for hire, shooting early films by Atom Egoyan and Bruce McDonald.
But during this period Mettler also made Eastern Avenue (85), which laid out the map for where he would head in the future. The film was a travelogue of sorts, with stops in Switzerland, Berlin, and Portugal. A handwritten opening title card stresses the importance of impulse at every step of the filmmaking process. That might sound like youthful bravado, but when you watch Eastern Avenue you can sense just how rigorously associative it is, devoted not just to cataloguing stray impressions but to ensuring that their arrangement holds meaning, that visual and aural textures are assembled in such a way that the film itself comes to feel like a journey.
Eastern Avenue became the template for Mettler’s most celebrated works: the astounding Picture of Light (94), in which he travels to the edge of civilization to photograph the aurora borealis; the epic Gambling, Gods and LSD (02), in which he goes to the Southwestern U.S., Switzerland, India, and Toronto’s airport to find people attempting to make contact with the sublime; and Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands (09), which surveys the drawing of bitumen from boreal forests entirely from an airborne perspective. And now, for The End of Time, Mettler has traveled to Hawaii and to the wastelands of Detroit, as well as revisiting India and Switzerland (his ancestral home), all in search of some means of contending with the puzzle of time.
“In the beginning there were no names,” Mettler says in The End of Time. “Things don’t have names. We made them up.” So what name do we make up for Mettler’s cinematic creations? “Documentary” feels misleading. “Essay film” doesn’t quite cut it—there are no theses. I’m willing to settle for “travelogue.” Because once you’ve experienced a Mettler film, you know that you’ve been somewhere.
The End of Time
The End of Time’s first stop is the European Organization for Nuclear Research aka CERN, located in Geneva’s suburbs and home to the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. Mettler interviews scientists and engineers who attempt to explain how the feats of mega-destruction orchestrated inside of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider simulate the Big Bang and speak to the mind-boggling malleability of time. But as the scientific discourse starts to overshadow Mettler’s philosophical interests, mischief works its way into the film’s editing scheme. Mettler blends together the different accounts of his CERN subjects to create an ensemble sound-art piece, full of abbreviated thoughts, hesitations, and other stray items normally discarded as false starts or outtakes.
A more reverent air envelops Jack Thompson, a Hawaiian hermit who knowingly resides within the path of lava steadily oozing from a volcano. “I’ve had a front-row seat for the action,” says Thompson, seemingly untroubled by the possibility of having his seat reduced to cinders. Aerial shots that recall the end of Solaris reveal just how perilously close Thompson’s house is to molten annihilation. Mettler eventually goes in for a closer look at the fiery phenomena, letting minutes pass without interruption. The images of lava spreading out and folding in on itself are so mesmerizing, so effective at making you lose your sense of time, that you wonder if Mettler wasn’t tempted to make The End of Time out of nothing but lava, as if it were a depopulated disaster movie.
Then there’s Detroit, which sometimes looks more like Chernobyl (or Stalker), a ghost town of rust, puddles, overgrown foliage, abandoned cars, and vacant buildings in slow decay. Do people actually live here? Some industrious families have turned this forsaken city into a nascent paradise, complete with organic community gardens. But the place feels frozen in time. Chairs stranded in hallways, seemingly not sat on for a century. Antiquated textbooks form a carpet on a schoolroom floor. Someone tells the story of a woman who returned to a house and could see things only as they were when she had lived there 30 years ago. Detroit is also the Motor City, and Mettler makes a pit stop at the world’s most beautiful parking garage—which used to be a movie palace, which used to be the site of the workshop where Ford invented the Model-T—and pauses to note how the car changed our sense of time by shortening travel. And since Detroit is the birthplace of techno, a music designed to dissolve the arrhythmic cadences of time into a stream of beats, buzzes, and ethereal hums, Mettler also passes some time with Plastikman, aka Richie Hawtin, who along with Thomas Köner and Autechre supplies The End of Time with its music.
Still to come are Indian prayers, temples, and funeral rites, and the watchful eyes of telescopes peering into space in search of dead stars—glimpses into deep history. (Cinema may be a way of gazing into the past, but astronomy got there first.) Visual motifs accumulate: Buddhist mandalas, the giant discs of the Large Hadron Collider, circles and spheres. They all seem to converge in the hallucinatory portal sequence near the end of the film, a showcase for Mettler’s own image-mixing software (which he uses in live performances). A psychedelic blast of flickering geometries leaves traces on your retinas; you can’t be sure of exactly what you see in the whirlwind—landscapes and lights, hands, a rock leaping out of a lake… The sequence works like the climax of a Sonic Youth song, the exhilarating clamor that threatens to collapse into chaos yet somehow manages to return to the familiar riff by the end.
Does that sound like a way to draw a movie about time to its conclusion? The answer is a resounding yes, so long as you’re willing to sit with the ambiguities inherent to the film’s concept. To surrender to Mettler is to accept meditation for its own sake. “Exploring for the sake of knowing” is how one of the CERN scientists describes his work. But for Mettler there is not even the knowing. Knowledge is secondary. This is an investigation without urgency; urgency would only obscure the nature of the investigation. The title of The End of Time is a misnomer: lingering over smoldering lava fields or hypnotic layers of kaleidoscopic patterns and elliptically arranged scene fragments, Mettler approaches his subject as if there’s nothing but time. Or perhaps as if there’s no time at all: this is a peculiar film in that its subject is, first, one of the intractable ingredients of cinema itself, and, second, something that may not actually exist.
But let’s go back through Time, to a key scene in which Mettler invites us into his editing suite. We see a cat in the grass, and then we see that the cat and the grass are actually an image on a screen, a screen within the screen we’re watching. Soon the cat becomes an ice cream truck, the ice cream truck becomes a fire—these image fragments are scattered throughout the movie. Mettler is showing us how a filmmaker registers time by recording it, breaking it up, rearranging it. The editing suite sequence is also another variation on Mettler’s transparent perspective, like the self-portraits in mirrors or the pensive, soft-spoken voiceovers he routinely employs. He wants to let us know he’s figuring this thing out as he goes along. Patience is among his gifts—patience to wander, wait, look, listen.
At one point Mettler cites Dostoevsky’s notion that when human happiness has been fully achieved time will come to an end. It’s a little like Bazin’s theory of cinema ending once it’s perfected. And a little like something Mettler himself has long imagined, a point at which his filmmaking becomes a superfluous byproduct of his travels. While making Picture of Light, he confessed, “I could imagine myself just walking endlessly . . . moving from one place to the next, not having anything but loving it, just watching life and surviving.” Sounds romantic, though I wouldn’t put it past him. It’s just that Mettler still has much work left to do (including a film about Albert Hoffman). “Restless” is how Jerry White defines Mettler in his book Of This Place and Elsewhere, and that restlessness is artistic, not just geographic.
The final stop in The End of Time: May 9, 2010—Mother’s Day. Mettler visits his mother, now in her eighties, frail, but a lucid, captivating presence, responding earnestly to her son’s questions about time. Time is there to enjoy everything you possibly can, she says. “Is that the right answer?” Of course, there is no right answer. And that’s a source of comfort, knowing that the questions can continue to be asked—they are timeless. There is no end.