BALIFILM RET D: Peter Mettler. Canada. 28 min. Wednesday, September 13, 11:30 AM AL GREEN THEATRE; Saturday, September 16, noon VARSITY 7 Rating: NNNN
PICTURE OF LIGHTRET D: Peter Mettler. Canada. 83 min. Sunday, September 10, 10 AM AL GREEN THEATRE; Saturday, September 16, 5 PM VARSITY 7 Rating: NNNN GAMBLING, GODS AND LSD RET D: Peter Mettler. Canada/Switzerland. 180 min. Monday, September 11, 5:15 PM AL GREEN THEATRE; Saturday, September 16, 7:15 PM VARSITY 7 Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
Peter Mettler is a curious choice for this year's Canadian Retrospective slot. Barely in mid-career, he's got a lot of years ahead of him. One of Atom Egoyan's most-used cinematographers, Mettler's probably best known for 2002's Gambling, Gods And LSD, which won a Genie for best documentary.
That sprawling, three-hour film, pretty much the only Mettler-directed work available on DVD and video, isn't a traditional doc, but you could say that about all his work. Think visual essay or impressionistic, self-conscious travelogue and you won't be far off.
These qualities are definitely in evidence in 1997's Balifilm, about the rehearsals for and performance of a Balinese dance show. Coyly mixing up film and video, black-and-white and colour, Mettler eschews pretty National Geographic scenes for what can only be called spiritual enquiry. He's always searching for that moment of grace or transcendence.
And he knows that his presence is affecting what we're seeing. There's a surprise near the end of the film when he shows us a girl looking at something intently. In the next image we see what what it is: a bearded white guy (Mettler himself, presumably) with a camera pointed at her.
1994's Picture Of Light is a perfect blend of image, text and philosophy, and needs to be seen on a big screen. It recounts the filmmaker's trek up to Churchill, Manitoba, to capture the northern lights on celluloid.
Of course, it's much more than that, although the goal certainly lends the work a momentum that some of his other films lack. Mettler, occasionally narrating in a deadpan monotone, makes us think about the idea of film itself. Does a thing exist if there's no image of it? Are movies a stand-in for real experience?
What's so refreshing is the way Mettler lets his subject - landscape or human - keep its mystery. Why is there a priest with an uncertain European accent living up there? Why does a worker wear a leather bike cap? The director is curious and open, never glib or dismissive.
The tight structural perfection of Picture Of Light is missing from Gambling, Gods And LSD, which wanders and sags. Mettler travels from the New World (Toronto and Las Vegas) to the Old (Switzerland and India) capturing various people's attempts to find transcendence in their lives.
He collects some terrific images, manages to make us see Sin City in a whole new way, and lets some subjects deliver intriguing or ridiculous theories about community and happiness along the way.
But the scope is too wide, and, to paraphrase something he says early on, the film is looking for itself. It's too self-indulgent, no more so than when we're shown a series of Post-Its describing sections of the film itself.
For more on Mettler at TIFF besides the eight films in the retrospective, check out Manufactured Landscapes (review, page 43), which he shot, and Elsewhere, an all-night live audio-visual event.
He's also the subject of two exhibits: one at the Lennox Contemporary Art Gallery until September 17, the other at Greener Pastures through October 1. And Jerry White's Of This Place And Elsewhere: The Films And Photography of Peter Mettler, has just been published by the Toronto International Film Festival Group.