If Peter Mettler ever gets around to founding a religion, sign up. Like all the best messiahs, he'll make the path matter more than the destination. He'll preach in probing questions. And you can smoke if you want to.Even better, Mettler's sutras would stretch from Vegas to South Asia, and would come delivered in pure light.
During the Toronto International Film Festival, Mettler sat framed by the blue window of a hotel suite, trying to explain his epic new film, Gambling, Gods And LSD. Why this questing, subtle experiment is distributed by the biggest entertainment company in the country. Why, at three hours, it's just a "version" of the true film, a 55-hour first cut that's sadly unfit for most mortals. Why LSD.
"For me the title is a list of three things," he says simply. "It's not meant to define the film. It's not about gambling, gods and LSD only. That listing is like the film itself, it's like an alchemy. You hear those things together and you ask, "What's it about? What do those things have in common? Where do they cross?'"
In the film, they intersect in the gospel of a Las Vegas sex inventor, in the pulse of techno music and in the arms of an Indian guru, among many, many other places.
"It's about how we find our meaning," Mettler says in his soft, persuasive baritone, "how we create hope or how we create identity or how we find ecstasy, how we find our belief system. Sometimes that's very material, sometimes it's spiritual, sometimes it's drugs."
Among his peers, Mettler is known as the eye, the visionary. He made Ryerson's most legendary graduating film, a dazzling dive inside a troubled mind called Scissere. He shot early shorts for Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema and Bruce McDonald, plus Egoyan's first two features.
But while his colleagues went on to successful careers in feature dramas, Mettler took his camera and hit the road. For Picture Of Light he went north on a quixotic journey to capture the aurora borealis. In Bali he immersed himself in gamelan music. He adapted Robert Lepage's Tectonic Plates for the screen. In fact, Mettler's one stab at a conventional movie, The Top Of His Head, might be best remembered now for a brilliant but dramatically baffling climax featuring lights swung like slingshots in lethal overhead arcs.
Mettler's work always defied both formal categorization and geographical boundaries. But now that that aesthetic has been globalized and it's hard to tell the difference between an art video and a Microsoft commercial, there's more room in the world for Mettler's real deal.
And with the rise of rave culture, the mainstreaming of alternative faiths and the triumph of personal movies courtesy of cheap digital video, Gambling, Gods And LSD hits screens at just the right moment.
Still, he had trouble explaining to the suits why he needed to make the film without a script.
"I didn't want to say, "This is what the film's going to look like. This is how long it's going to be,'" he recalls. "I really had to find a way to talk about it as a process, as an exploration of themes. Even in documentary, that's unorthodox."
That process, Mettler gambled, "would somehow capture something ineffable and mysterious about how we are and how we live and how we look and how we see and how we experience and how we remember. I really wanted to capture a universe that operated on that level, as opposed to designing it."
Mettler's sense of time is famously geological. That became a problem when the first assembly cut, including reams of digital video, came in at 55 hours.
"Fifty-five hours, yeah," Mettler says, a little sheepishly. "In a way, it's the truest...." He breaks off. "It's the film. It's the choices of what I felt worked, cut so it's representative of the experience.
"After that assembly we spent a good year creating a nine-hour cut, as an argument to show the people involved that the film could be longer. That went super-smoothly. There was an instant good reaction."
The finished film is long by conventional standards, but it has the immersive feel of a great concert, or religious experience, or dream. How long should a film be? How long is a piece of string?
"Every moment counts," Mettler says, "from the first sound and image you hear. I take a lot from music, from how the emotions are affected musically. I don't mean using music in film; I mean using film as music, working a piece of film like a musical composition. So there's a sort of tuning process at the beginning of the film."
Gambling, Gods And LSD begins with what Mettler calls "that tele-divinity image, which is aggressive, a kind of cosmic source of imagery. Then you jump to something very slow in the natural environment, in the waters of Killarney, stones and breeze. What's this film about? You don't know yet. Then it's airplanes flying around, and then a guy with a really cruddy video camera talking about his life and his relationship to heroin. Those are the four ingredients that begin the film."
Mettler grins his Buddha grin. "At that point it's clear this isn't going to work like a normal film."
GAMBLING, GODS AND LSD written and directed by Peter Mettler, produced by Ingrid Veninger, Alexandra Rockingham Gill and Cornelia Seitler. A Grimthorpe Film production. An Odeon release. 180 minutes. Special preview party/screening Saturday (February 1) -- see sidebar page 73. Opens February 7 at the Royal Cinema. Rating: NNNN