Film of the Week: The End of Time
Peter Mettler’s documentary The End of Time begins with archival footage of U.S. Air Force pilot Joe Kittinger, who in August 1960 ascended 102,800 feet from the earth’s surface in a helium balloon. It’s not till much later that we get the payoff to this story and learn exactly what Kittinger’s flight has to do with time and its coming to an end. At several points in Mettler’s film, you might find yourself thinking, “OK, intriguing… but just where is he going with this?”
Eventually you realize that the very idea of expecting Mettler’s film to go somewhere, to reach an end point, is missing the point—just too damn teleological. This idiosyncratic, peripatetic documentary has elements of what we think of as an essay film, in the sense of being about associated ideas instead of specific concrete phenomena, although it’s not abstract to the point of being a full-blown tone poem. Rather, it’s about a series of seemingly disconnected topics linked by an abstract idea, and by a certain exploratory spirit.
In any case, the film doesn’t get round to discussing time, its ostensible theme, for quite a while. First there comes a guided tour of CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland, home of the Large Hadron Collider, where the recent discovery of the elusive Higgs Boson particle unleashed an onslaught of new information about the creation of matter. As the camera explores the site’s long tunnels and Piranesi-like galleries, we meet assorted experts whose comments suggest a porous frontier where hard science blurs into the realm of mysticism, and physics into metaphysics. Some of these comments are deliciously vertiginous: like the idea that the Collider can create particles that have not existed since fractions of seconds after the Big Bang; or the notion of nature “thinking about itself and understanding itself”; or that the installation spares scientists from having to deal, as they previously did, with “a billion collisions that were of no interest.” (What can that possibly mean? Just how do you disregard a billion collisions?)
Before the dazzled non-initiate can begin to absorb all this, the film shifts into more impressionistic mode: we see rocks rolling down the side of a volcano, and in an image that registers as a concisely elegant representation of time, the play of light on a distressed wooden floor. Then we move to Hawaii, and a man who has lived alone for 30 years on an island where the crawl of lava is itself a representation of time’s inexorable flow. This hermit makes the pithiest case for the relative nature of time when he says of his stay: “The days seem to drag sometimes and the years fly by.”
Mettler also takes us to more familiar places. The dilapidated, cavernous Detroit car park that was once a palatial cinema—and before that, the site of Henry Ford’s workshop—has become a favorite location of the school of urban-decay photography often disparaged as “ruin porn.” But this is just one stop on Mettler’s pensive eco-tour, as we meet other Detroit inhabitants who are building their own neo-rural idyll by reclaiming abandoned houses in the thickly vegetated space that parts of the city have reverted to. As one Polynesian island disappears, new islands of habitation emerge from the Detroit forest.
So the film goes on, themes and echoes emerging. At a monastery in Bhutan, mandalas on a temple ceiling provide a visual rhyme with the concentric circles of the CERN apparatus seen earlier. At a telescope site in a desert somewhere, a scientist points out that the images captured by such devices show us the universe as it was four, five, even 10 billion years ago—so that the act of observing is akin to time travel.
If this sounds familiar, certain themes of The End of Time are close to those of Patricio Guzmán’s poetic but disturbing 2010 documentary Nostalgia for the Light, which made the same point regarding the telescopes of the Atacama Desert in Chile. Guzman’s interest is more directly political than Mettler’s: he contrasts gazing into the astronomically distant past with the difficulty that Chile still has in scrutinizing its own recent past, namely the Pinochet era.
The politics of Mettler’s film are more strictly environmental: the notion that human intervention can undo in a lifetime the ecosystems that have taken millions of years to evolve. But his film is more generally concerned with the gradual unfolding of ideas and visual images through time—that is, in the viewer’s mind. The End of Time is less interesting when offering explicit insights of commentators—including Mettler himself, who contributes a drawling, stoner-ish voiceover—than when letting images do the work, following digressive turns that don’t obviously build up to an essayistic argument but are immensely suggestive nonetheless.
A key figure in the Eighties “Ontario New Wave,” and sometime DP to Atom Egoyan, Mettler last ventured into this leisurely style of idea exploration in his three-hour philosophical travelogue Gambling, Gods and LSD (02). That film explored the human search for transcendence through such means as gaming, religion, and acid. This new, shorter film (109 minutes) is of a piece with its predecessor; it could have been called CERN, Ferns, and CGI. There’s a touch of the acid mindset here, certainly: towards the end, many of Mettler’s images come together in an abstract montaged freak-out that might have made a very effective credits sequence, but feels too trippily “heyy-wowww” when incorporated into the main body of the film. At moments, The End of Time come perilously close to a tone of nebulous new-age amazement, a touch too Koyaanisqatsian for comfort.
But what I like about the film is that, by and large, it evades stating specifically what it’s about. The End of Time confirms its own argument that phenomena exist only insofar as human beings identify them, fix them with names. A commentator in Bhutan points out “In reality, there’s no such thing as time by itself”; and, if I understand right, the Higgs Boson only exists insofar it’s named as such, given classification as an observed object. This is only a film about the end of time if that’s what you choose to call it: you could equally see it as a picture of Mettler’s observational habits and his infectious curiosity about imponderables.
Of course, you might also conclude that this is “really” a film about film. One scientist here notes that the aim of particle physics is “to probe regions of time that we can’t actually see naturally”—something that has always been a specialist area of cinema’s expertise. We eventually learn what happened to Joe Kittinger: descending back to earth, he fell faster than the speed of sound, yet had the impression of being suspended, as though time had stopped. This paradox will be familiar to cinephiles from their own experience of the strange elasticity of cinematic time. Why can an eight-hour Lav Diaz film seem a relative breeze, while two hours watching Pacific Rim feel like untold eternities?