Canadian filmmaker Peter Mettler’s newest film, The End of Time, begins with a fall from the heavens. The footage is from Project Excelsior, in which Captain Joseph Kittinger of the United States Air Force parachuted out of a balloon all the way up in the stratosphere, above New Mexico. It’s breathtaking, daring, and perhaps unfathomable for those of us stuck here on solid ground. It is also a beautiful way to open up the most recent installment in the director’s career-long examination of humanity and its small but significant role in a vast, overwhelming universe of space and time.
This grand exploration is particularly thrilling in his nonfiction films, of which The End of Time is only the most recent. The journey began in the early 1990s in the frozen wilderness of Northern Manitoba. Picture of Light (1994) is a scientific adventure flick of sorts, chronicling an expedition to capture the Northern Lights on film. The goal is both scientific and spiritual, not that Mettler necessarily sees a difference between those two categories. This is about transcendence, which can be a similar experience regardless of whether it is rationalized through faith or the mathematics of refraction.
A few years later, Mettler took the core idea of this mission and turned it loose upon the entire world. Gambling, Gods and LSD (2002) looks at an almost absurdly wide variety of human efforts to elevate or dislocate the mind and the spirit. He begins at the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship Church, where believers speak in tongues and flail around on the floor in their religious passion. From there the journey is limitless. There are gamblers in Las Vegas, sex chair manufacturers, crowds gathered to watch the demolition of giant buildings, recovering drug addicts, Swiss scientists and Indian pilgrims, to name a few. The brilliance of the film is the way in which Mettler treats all of these elements equally, placing the honesty of Canadian Christians and Swiss heroin addicts on the same plane as the less verbal testimony of ancient petroglyphs in Monument Valley.
In the end, there are no answers. Given the film’s three hour running time, that is either immensely frustrating or exactly right, depending on how you approach the question of transcendence yourself. In this respect, Gambling, Gods and LSD might be the filmmaker’s most purely speculative film. It is the vagabond to Picture of Light’s determined explorer. Yet the earlier film also comes up with few answers. Mettler’s trip to Manitoba yields mostly powerful images of humanity in nature, some of them even comic. In one particularly interesting moment a local drills a hole in the wall of Mettler’s motel room during a storm, just to show him how fast the space will fill up with snow. The pristine immensity of Canada’s chilled beauty is an inkling of another trend in the filmmaker’s work.
That would be humanity, alone and tiny, surrounded by the vastness of the natural world. Yet, while the last moments of Picture of Light might suggest something to the contrary, Mettler does not generally seem to be of the opinion that our smallness is the same as insignificance. One only need look at Petropolis (2009). Co-produced by Greenpeace Canada, this is a mostly wordless journey up to Alberta’s Tar Sands, where the oil industry is quickly going about the massive destruction of an almost incomprehensibly large tract of land. Filmmakers and journalists have covered this before, of course, but none quite like this. The 43-minute film is like a flight over another world, or a horrific image of a post-apocalyptic future. There are colors that, frankly, none of us should see in any context other than a hideous Tim Burton fantasy film. It’s hard to imagine a better way to understand the Tar Sands project than this simple, direct form of ambitious, almost hubristic filmmaking.
And now, moving on from mankind’s most grandiose earth-moving endeavor, Mettler has taken on time. Not that there is really a difference. The End of Time begins at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, making the crystal-clear point that space and time are hardly unrelated concepts. This foundation then kicks off what might very well be Mettler’s most philosophically ambitious nonfiction film yet. From the Alps he then moves to Hawaii, turning our attention from time’s physicality to its potential for tumult and fluctuation. The islands of the 50th state are volatile and new. Lava flows, killing plants but making new land, simultaneously creative and destructive. The relationship between space and time is not docile.
Then he turns to Detroit, and death. The last few years have seen a great many documentaries about Motor City, some of them quite excellent. Mettler is not interested in studying the place and its history, but rather he uses it as a particularly interesting metaphor. It is here that he finds both urban decay and renewal, streets of empty homes not too far from community gardens. “Everything we touch is based on previous death,” someone says, “the previous death of beings.” While some of his images are borrowed from many, many other recent films, his philosophical intent rings quite clear.
That’s only the beginning. The End of Time brings together time, space, nature and humankind in a way that other recent documentaries have perhaps only begun to consider. It’s a bit like Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Encounters at the End of the World combined, with some of Werner Herzog’s earlier thematic ambitions tossed in. Yet while the German auteur’s role in defining the philosophy of his own documentaries often borders on the rhetorically bombastic, Mettler is a much more unassuming figure. His predominant mode is that of questioning wonderment, ever more open-minded and impressionable no matter how much scientific information is added to the mix. This is the strength of his work, the notion that the human experience is full of discovery and transcendence no matter where or when we find ourselves. And with The End of Time, this idea is as exciting as it ever was.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center is holding a retrospective of Mettler’s nonfiction films from November 8th to 12th. The End of Time will be released on November 29th, and is already available on DVD and on iTunes in Canada.