Without going too far down the ubiquitous “Canadian cinema sucks” road, I have to say that there is a distinct lack of personal vision in English-Canadian cinema. And I do stress English-Canadian cinema, because French-Canadian cinema is alive and well, bold and unique. While Quebec has a long list of internationally respected filmmakers from Denys Arcand to Denis Villeneuve to Xavier Dolan, the rest of Canada has a serious problem with cinematic artistry. Where are our auteurs? We’ve got David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan, of course; long-time industry veterans who have always stuck true to their sensibilities and deservedly get to be at the forefront of the Canadian film industry as well as cutting edge cinema in general. There’s Guy Maddin, cranking out his own wonderfully odd fantasy films from the remote seclusion of Winnipeg; movies that often feel as if they were sent to us from another planet. And let’s not forget Bruce La Bruce, who spits in the face of censorship and good taste to blur the line between art and pornography. But once you move past them, who’s next? Sarah Polley has directed a couple of emotionally resonant films, but I wouldn’t say she’s quite there yet. And Daniel Cockburn and Panos Cosmatos both crafted impressive debut features with You Are Here and Beyond the Black Rainbow, respectively, but we’ll have to see where they go next.
Yet there is one more name that seems to get consistently overlooked in conversations about Canadian film. Over the last 30 years, Peter Mettler has put forth a body of work consisting of both documentaries and fiction films that is as singular and unconventional as anything being made not just in Canada, but throughout the world. It’s time to officially claim him as one of our best Canadian artists.
I saw my first Mettler film back in 2009 at TIFF. I had heard of him and some of his work before and had seen some clips that intrigued me enough to pick up a ticket for the premiere of Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands. Petropolis is pretty much exactly what its title states it is: a series of gorgeous aerial shots of the controversial Alberta Tar Sands project. The film was funded by Greenpeace so it’s meant as a call to arms but Mettler sidesteps conventional activist filmmaking techniques. Instead of using talking heads or relying too much on statistical information, Mettler just concentrates on the imagery of the land. By seeing the expanse of the tar sands from above, you can immediately gather the deteriorating effects that it has on the land, water, and climate. Overlaid on top is Mettler’s own voice as narrator, hauntingly commenting on what we’re seeing. It’s the most unique form of activist filmmaking that I’ve ever encountered.
Only within the last month or so have I really started to delve into Mettler’s previous work, though. I decided to check out his 1994 documentary Picture of Light and was treated to another visual and intellectual spectacle. The film follows Mettler and his team as they travel way north to Churchill, Manitoba, or “the end of the civilized world” as they call it. Their goal is to capture the Northern Lights on film, which they do brilliantly. But the film is no mere photography assignment, as it becomes more of a spiritual journey than anything else. Mettler again narrates, breaking down any line between the process of making the film and the product itself; for him, they are one and the same. He is discovering his film as he goes along and this sense of wonderment and mystery is enthralling. As we see the sleepy town of Churchill submerged in snow and subzero temperatures, it really does start to seem like the end of the world, and you wonder whether this might be the one place on Earth to find yourself.
Mettler takes this notion of finding yourself to it’s epic extreme in his most well-known and acclaimed film to date, Gambling, Gods and LSD, and I don’t hesitate to call it a masterpiece. With a runtime of 3 hours, we follow Mettler on his travels around the world as he explores the different ways that people find transcendence. We see an evangelical Christian convention taking place near the airport in Toronto, its participants singing or writhing around on the floor in fits and convulsions. We see the demolition of a building in Las Vegas, as well as a self-proclaimed “scientist” and creator of electrical sex toys on a quest to be able to induce the most powerful female orgasm possible. We see a couple of recovering heroin addicts in Switzerland, as they alternately long for and regret the high that the drug gave them. As with Picture of Light, Mettler approached the film without a clear idea of where it was headed, and he ends up taking the viewer on one of the most spellbinding cinematic journeys in recent memory. All of the events in the film are captured in such a calm and abstract way that it feels as if you’re following an extraterrestrial who is discovering our planet, further enhanced my Mettler’s trademark narration. Needless to say, the cinematography is breathtaking, shot by the filmmaker himself, and for all its disparate elements, it flows beautifully, never dragging. It’s hard to even call it a documentary, as it feels so unclassifiable. It’s one of the most unique cinematic head trips of the new millennium, a movie you don’t so much watch as sink into.
Lastly, I took a look at one of his forays into fictional filmmaking with 1989’s The Top of His Head. I was excited to see how Mettler would adapt the themes and techniques from his non-fiction work into a scripted narrative. The plot concerns a satellite dish salesman named Gus Victor who falls in love with a performance artist named Lucy. When she disappears, leaving behind a cryptic note, Gus abandons his ordered life to go after her, while also being pursued by the police who are interested in Lucy’s subversive activities. The story is really just an excuse for Mettler to engage in the same sort of quest for meaning that he’s done in his other work. Except here, unfortunately, it doesn’t work quite as well. In his non-fiction work, you’re plugged right into Mettler’s journeys, seeing it through his eyes. In The Top of His Head, you’re kept on the outside watching fictional characters go through this journey, and the whole thing starts to look a little pretentious and phony. There’s definitely some interesting stuff here, especially in some of the Lynchian surreality of the narrative, plus the cinematography and production design is stunning. But in the end, the movie is just a little too hard to get involved in, as it’s so intent on being obtuse and mysterious. It also doesn’t help that actor Stephen Ouimette, clearly playing Gus as a Mettler stand-in, registers everything that happens to his character with a doe-eyed stupidity. Nevertheless, it’s still an inventive stab by Mettler at a more conventional type of filmmaking than he is usually accustomed to and far more interesting than a lot other English-Canadian narrative films.
Peter Mettler’s new film, The End of Time, will be playing this year at TIFF and I’ve got myself a ticket to the premiere. A documentary about our conceptions of time, it sounds very much like it could be a companion piece to Gambling, Gods and LSD, so I’m really excited to see it, especially on a big screen. Mettler’s work has been praised by critics within Canada, but it seems to go almost unnoticed throughout the rest of the world. Here’s hoping his work eventually starts to reach a more international audience. This is the kind of fiercely independent filmmaker that the Canadian film industry needs to promote and put at it’s forefront; not the kind of look-how-great-our-country-is pap that gets pushed in everyone’s faces. Yes, Score: A Hockey Musical, I’m looking at you.