All Things Must Pass

Peter Mettler's The End of Time

19 mins read

“I don’t gravitate towards dark things,” says Peter Mettler. It’s an appropriate statement coming from a director who once made a film called Picture of Light. In Mettler’s cinema, as in Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, everything is illuminated, whether it’s the aurora borealis over northern Manitoba in Picture of Light, the racing lights of Pearson International Airport in his epic Gambling, Gods and LSD (2003) or, in Petropolis (2009), the elevated perspectives on the Alberta tar sands, which have their own scary clarity. It’s a critical cliché to say that certain filmmakers have a vision, but in Mettler’s case, the work is defined largely by vision. It’s the curious, roving gaze of an artist who has learned to believe his own eyes.

It’s unsurprising, then, that Mettler’s new film The End of Time, which made its world premiere at the Locarno International Film Festival before touching down at TIFF, contains a handful of indelible shots. There’s vintage 16-mm footage of U.S. Airman Joseph Kittinger falling towards earth from a height of 102,000 feet (an effort that transcends the prosaic designation of Guinness World Record); a fleet of ants swarming the corpse of a grasshopper before bearing it away in an eerie miniature simulacrum of a funeral ceremony; or a wall of lava slowly encroaching on a single plant, which stands out in sharp green relief against the ash until being violently absorbed.

“That was one of the moments when I felt a lot of clarity about my subject,” says Mettler of this remarkable shot, which might be The End of Time’s signature image. “It was when I had a one-to-one relationship to nature. When I was just sitting there watching something happen.”

This motif of visible change underwrites the entire film. The End of Time is not a metaphor. Mettler’s globe-trotting cine-essay is quite literally about time: as an abstract concept, as a metaphysical construct and as a physical reality. Hence the overture featuring Kittinger’s historical plunge. When asked about what it was like to fall from such a great height, the decorated daredevil said it felt like time was slowing down as he was speeding—a contradiction that briefly rendered him a living, breathing avatar for the theory of relativity. But how does an artist who doesn’t have a hot air balloon to drop himself from get a firm handle on something so incredibly ineffable? How do you make a movie about time?

Mettler may be on a short list with Werner Herzog, Chris Marker and his hero, the late Dutch master Johann van der Keuken, as filmmakers who could get away with saying that they’ve seen it all, or at least, way more than most. Still, there’s a tentative quality to the early moments of The End of Time, which suggests that this habitually adventurous director is agonizing over finding the right angle of approach. This sensation squares with Mettler’s own admission that the film found its form on the fly. “Some projects have definite events that spark their beginnings,” he says. “I think that The End of Time was more like a series of musings and meditations that slowly crystallized together.”

Mettler may not have started with a “Eureka!” moment but the film’s first extended passage is about the attempt to re-create a kind of Big Bang. Returning to his native Switzerland, Mettler takes his camera deep underground into the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, home to the Large Hadron Collider, an integral part of CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). It’s an environment out of a James Bond movie, all blinking tunnels and scurrying people in lab coats, and yet Mettler says he was surprised at how easily he was able to gain access.

“We contacted them to talk about the film and see what was possible. I gave them some DVDs of Gambling, Gods and LSD as well. They said that we should come as soon as possible. Once [the machines start] it’s a death zone, nobody goes down there for years. But they encouraged me to come take a look.” Mettler’s camera captures the space with equal measures of awe and irreverence. The technology is amazing, but it’s also so flat and colour-coded that it looks like the world’s largest and most expensive Lego playset.

The CERN sequence is crucial in establishing certain motifs in The End of Time, including the alternation between Mettler’s own typically poetic voice-over and the almost choral arrangement of his interview subjects, who are never identified by name. Nor does Mettler mark the jumps between different geographical locations with datelines. This is possibly an attempt to give the material a sense of timelessness, to square with a piece of Mettler’s narration that insists that “you don’t always have to know the name of what you see…It doesn’t matter what time it is.”

Whatever the rationale, it’s a daring choice that gives The End of Time a deceptively drifting quality that belies its savvy organization. For instance, the CERN material is almost overwhelmingly heady, with lots of jargon and big-picture theorizing. It’s also the last time that Mettler privileges an explicitly scientific perspective. He leaves the subterranean geniuses just as they’re celebrating a major breakthrough, complete with popped champagne bottles. More power to ’em, surely, but Mettler is more drawn to people with a layman’s interest in his theme, folks who are less interested in unravelling the fabric of the universe than in getting comfortably wrapped up inside.

These include Jack Thompson, hardy loner who makes his home in Hawaii amid those aforementioned photogenic lava flows. (It’s a coincidence that Thompson also figures in another of the year’s other mesmerizing documentaries, Victor Kossakovsky’s Hot Docs hit Vivan las Antipodas, a movie that Mettler hasn’t seen but would probably love.) Like any new homeowner, Thompson’s main motivators were location, location, location. He dropped out of the working world to get a better view of geological processes as old as the Earth itself. “I was putting in the last window when it all started,” he says of the gradual but spectacularly violent upheavals around him, which turn the ground into molten tableaux out of an H.R. Giger catalogue. “And I’ve had a front-row seat ever since. I’m still here because I haven’t gotten in the way.”

This combination of being enraptured and cautious informed Mettler’s modus operandi during his time in the Aloha State. Lugging a camera around a volcano is a Herzogian feat of will, but it’s also a little bit dangerous. “Actually it’s relatively safe,” insists Mettler. “I’d never been on a volcano before. Somebody took me out in the middle of the night, total darkness, and there’s this orange glow but you don’t know how far away it is. It turned out that it was miles out. You’re walking with a headlamp over this crusty surface, which as you see in the film looks like bones and bodies or monsters—very unnerving. There are heat zones underneath, hot lava moving along. The sun came up and that’s when we shot.”

Mettler contrasts Thompson’s dogged determination to live in a simmering, prehistoric landscape with a community-building project in an even more spectacularly dilapidated landscape: Detroit. Paul Verhoeven’s delirious urban satire Robocop (1987) prophesied that Motor City would be a burned-out husk by 2019, but Mettler’s film shows that it’s actually proceeding ahead of schedule. Stark images of ruined buildings describe a metropolis gone to seed.

“It was the idea of epoch” that attracted Mettler to Detroit. “I was attracted to it for that visual change, for the collapse and decay and the fact that nature is still very present and how it takes over.” Talk that a filmmaker should try to adapt Alan Weisman’s 2007 best-seller The World Without Us, an alternately dispassionate and lyrically terrifying thought experiment imagining Earth sans humans, can cease. Unofficially, Mettler has accomplished it here in a haunting vision of Western civilization overrun and overgrown.

“I see Detroit as emblematic of American society,” says one ardent young voice on the soundtrack. “Like if the whole plan had worked out, it would still be prosperous here.” The voice belongs to one of a group of young people who’ve decamped to this soggy suburban section of the city to try to kick-start it. We see him and a few others moving through the empty houses, trying to touch them up. Instead of Occupying Wall Street, they’re trying to inhabit a ghost town wasting away in its shadow.

Whether Mettler views the kids’ quest as quixotic or sees them as bohemian opportunists taking advantage of non-existent property values doesn’t matter. It’s probably not the latter but the director has always been reluctant to invite political readings of his work. “I’m not a big fan of didacticism,” he says. “The truth always lies in a complex set of circumstances. That’s what I try to show. When I was working with Greenpeace on Petropolis, that was the first thing we discussed, that I didn’t want to make a piece of agitprop.”

Mettler does show his counterculture bona fides in another Detroit-set strand about Richie Hawtin, a.k.a. Plastikman, the innovative electronic musician and DJ who helped kickstart the city’s burgeoning techno scene in the early 1990s. “Techno had its birth [in Detroit], and techno suggests another era altogether,” says Mettler. “It’s like a digital age and a digital logic, and I thought that this plus the sense of collapse and decay were fascinating together.” And indeed, the juxtaposition of silent, dilapidated spaces and surging crowds dancing their hearts out to Hawtin’s sound-and-light assault creates a powerful sensation.

In moments like these it’s worth asking whether The End of Time is, strictly speaking, a documentary. It’s a work of non-fiction but it also has extended passages of pure visual and aural expression that are perhaps closer to experimental cinema (specifically the trance film). “Cinema is sound and image,” says Mettler. “Those things are present whether it’s documentary or drama. I try not to separate those genres. The reason I get filed under documentary is for practical reasons, for funding reasons, for certain festivals to show the work. But I think the last few films I’ve done are all hybrids in a way.”

Whatever The End of Time is, it took a lot of work to get it that way. Mettler estimates that he’s been labouring on it for five years, including two years of editing (Mettler cut the film himself along with Roland Schlimme). “I was relieved to get through it,” he sighs. “I think it’s the most difficult film that I’ve made, because of the topic.” He also thinks that in some ways, The End of Time is his “most personal movie,” although he knows that choice of words carries some questionable connotations (i.e., does that mean that his other movies are somehow impersonal?).

“I think one of the arcs of this particular experience was that it became about mortality—an awareness of my own mortality,” says Mettler. “It’s personal in a very specific sort of way. When I made Gambling, Gods and LSD I was going out in search of transcendence, going beyond and escaping things. Now the question is more, ‘Well, where am I going?’”

It’s a poetic touch that for this particular journey, all roads lead home. The End of Time concludes with an offhandedly lovely sequence filmed in Toronto at Mettler’s parents’ house. “It was Mother’s Day,” he recalls, “and I went over with the camera to show them how I work, this tool that I use. It was a chance circumstance. We started talking about time and I went into interviewer mode with my own mother. It was very touching. It was a complete surprise. In editing, piecing together different ideas, I tried the piece with her and it works. Initially, it was the beginning of the film.”

Without spoiling the scene’s content, it’s enough to say that Mettler’s mother inadvertently provides her son with a perfect grace note that completes the film’s move from an abstract realm to an emotional one. They’re words of wisdom that it takes a lifetime to arrive at, yet feel (like so much else in this movie) serenely timeless. The End of Time is not a light film by any means. It’s hugely scaled and stately in its pacing, and at times seems to be trying to break the viewer’s brain either through complex concepts or sheer sensory overload.

And yet for all its intimations of impermanence—which is no more than a poetic word for death—it’s not exactly dark, either. It exists in the twilight zone that is home to much of the best non-fiction filmmaking: at once rousing and sobering, baffling and precise, epic and intimate. “I always try to make it clear that what I’m doing is subjective,” says Mettler. “And what I’m offering you, then, is poetry.” With that it mind, it might be best to cite Walt Whitman, no stranger himself to poetic treatises on the passing of time, and say that Mettler’s movie contains multitudes.

Adam Nayman is a critic and teacher in Toronto. He writes for Cinema Scope, The Ringer, and other publications.

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