Of This Place and Elsewhere

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Charismatic, quiet, intelligent, stylish, handsome: Peter Mettler possesses all of those qualities but they don’t possess him. A star director, he is happy to be a collaborator, using his eyes, and what they can capture, to accompany musicians like Fred Frith and filmmakers like McDonald, Egoyan, Rozema and Jennifer Baichwal. Mettler is a documentarian and a philosopher, the closest thing to Chris Marker that Canada or Switzerland, his two homes, are ever likely to produce. This year, The Toronto International Film Festival commissioned a book by distinguished film scholar Jerry White and organized a retrospective of his work. POV is proud to publish an excerpt from Professor White’s
 Of This Time and Elsewhere: The Films and Photography of Peter Mettler.

One could argue that the “Toronto New Wave” of the eighties drafted a kind of blueprint for Canada’s national cinema, eclipsing the aesthetic embodied by the NFB documentaries that provided a dull-as- dirt start for Canadian cinema on the one hand, and the experimental films that offered a largely ignored and therefore effectively irrelevant alternative on the other. The filmmakers who comprise the Toronto New Wave—Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema, Bruce McDonald, Don McKellar, John Greyson and Peter Mettler—are indeed a roll call of English Canada’s narrative cinema of the eighties, and it is certainly significant that they represent the first generation of Canadian filmmakers to emerge without direct support from—or the influence of—the NFB.

The Toronto New Wave was, after all, a group that sought to realize the long- standing dream of an English-Canadian cinema that was neither arcane nor Hollywood, a cinema that could compare to what had emerged in Quebec in the seventies. These filmmakers would be English-Canada’s Denys Arcand, Claude Jutra, Gilles Carle, Micheline Lanctôt and Gilles Groulx. However, one of the crucial differences between Peter Mettler and both groups of filmmakers—English— and French-Canadian—is the way in which he embodies a truly international perspective.

This goes well beyond his deep ties to Switzerland: his parents are Swiss, and he has lived there for significant stints, including time spent at a boarding school outside Lausanne (after being kicked out of Upper Canada College) and working at a clinic for heroin addicts in Zürich. It also goes beyond the globe-trotting nature of his work, a quality amply evident in Eastern Avenue (1985), Balifilm (1997) and Gambling, Gods and LSD (2002). Simple matters of biography or content aside, Mettler’s work forces us to examine it outside Canadian cinema, in larger contexts. This is partly due to the fact that those responsible for defining our national cinema (namely funding agencies) have a hard time dealing with the hybrid forms in which Mettler specializes. But perhaps more importantly, Mettler’s films are restless—both formally and thematically—in a way that isn’t true of the aforementioned filmmakers. Mettler has seemed to inspire the Toronto group by embodying a constant move forward, a constant look beyond, to the incorporation of new forms, ideas and subjects—from narrative, to documentary, to the North, to experimental music, to India.

Mettler’s connection to the group of Toronto filmmakers who came of age in the eighties is well-established, yet he seems the odd man out, the only member of the group to eschew commercial narrative. Conspicuously commercial efforts like Rozema’s Mansfield Park (1999) and Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies (2005), to say nothing of the episodic TV projects of McDonald and McKellar, only make the distinction clearer. But as well as working with some of these filmmakers as a cinematographer, Mettler also shares to a certain extent their desire to speak to a wide audience, to move Canadian cinema out of the realm of the earnestly irrelevant. It’s just that Mettler has his own ideas about what an alternative to earnestness looks like, as well as a different notion of relevance.

Mettler exists between the conventional and the experimental, never entirely at home in either and yet fully engaged with each. He is a key member of Canada’s second generation of avant- garde filmmakers, a group that includes Mike Hoolboom, Ann Marie Fleming, Richard Fung and Guy Maddin. These are filmmakers who move freely between narrative and non-narrative modes, who have strongly resisted the hermetic quality of the earlier generation of experimentalists, such as Michael Snow or Jack Chambers. The work of Mettler and his fellow experimentalists evinces the ways in which Canadian cinema has moved completely beyond the “Cinema We Need” debate that so rocked the Canadian filmmaking academy in the eighties—hence its wider appeal. But Mettler has also been heavily invested in the psychological and moral seriousness that lies at the heart of English-Canadian cinema, driving filmmakers like Egoyan, Bruce Sweeney, or William MacGillivray.

The history of our national cinema may seem straightforward—the tale of an earnest, documentary-oriented cinema trying to shake off its Griersonian shackles and emerge into the exciting realm of smarter-than-Hollywood narrative filmmaking—but the traditions of narrative and documentary filmmaking in Canada converge in complex ways. And though the Toronto New Wave group may have succeeded largely in escaping the dry, civic sensibility of an NFB-influenced notion of Canadian film, they are not as far removed from that sensibility as they may initially appear. There is no doubt that this group followed the lead of David Cronenberg rather than, say, Allan King, in what appeared to be an explicit reaction against the documentary- influenced realism that then dominated so much of Canadian cinema (with significant analogues in Canadian literature). But it’s not quite that simple, especially because these filmmakers’ thematic concerns often seem to connect naturally with the sober realism of an earlier generation. For example, the epistemological questions at the heart of Egoyan’s Family Viewing (1987)—how do technology and photographic reproduction affect intimacy or understanding?—are at the core of innumerable classic NFB films, such as Roman Kroitor’s The Living Machine (1961) or Kroitor and Wolf Koenig’s Lonely Boy (1961). Much of the work of the Toronto New Wave (the faux-documentary of Hard Core Logo [1996], the meta- television of Twitch City [1998, 2000], and many others) can easily be connected to the engagement with realism and perception that defines the high points of the “old” Canadian cinema.

Peter Mettler is the complex filmmaker par excellence, and it’s impossible to group his work in with Kroitor and his Unit B colleagues or Egoyan and his Toronto New Wave compatriots. The emergence of a filmmaker like Mettler forces us to think carefully about how convention and experimentation can not only co-exist but rely on one another. As a filmmaker whose aesthetic has shown an ever- increasing sophistication in a country better known for rough-looking, vérité- influenced docu-fictions, Mettler is very much in line with the Toronto New Wave; that being said, he diverges from their concerns in a way that recalls the relationship Arthur Lipsett had with the NFB’s Unit B during its golden age. Like Mettler, Lipsett placed more importance on innovation than on community—on experimenting with what cinema could achieve, rather than on consolidating resources and careers in the service of the laudable goal of moving the national cinema forward. Lipsett’s tortured found-spirituality that defines Mettler’s work, both filmmakers explore the psychological costs of making sense of that chaos.

Large parts of Mettler’s oeuvre, if not its entirety, are concerned with psychology and spirituality, and with the impact of technology upon them. Strongly echoing the Canadian philosopher George Grant, R. Bruce Elder writes in The Cinema We Need that “in technocracy nothing can be left uncontrolled, for technocracy is the will to mastery. Narrative is the artistic structure of technocracy. The cinema we need, the cinema that combats technocracy, will, therefore, be non-narrative. It will not be animated by a rage for order… It will accept that every discovery involves dissimulation.” In his work, Mettler has been ambiguous about the role of technology in contemporary life. Thus it follows, Elder might say, that he makes similarly ambiguous use of the visual patterns and structures of narrative cinema.

Rather than being an example of the photography-obsessed experimental filmmaking (such as the work of Snow and Chambers) that Elder sees as crucial to the history of cinema in Canada, Mettler’s work better illustrates Elder’s assertion that “Canadian thought… has been dominated by questions concerning technology.” To support his claim, Elder invokes such figures as Grant and Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan’s impact on Mettler is very clearly felt in The Top of His Head (1989), especially in terms of Mettler’s portrayal of the mass media as— to paraphrase the subtitle of McLuhan’s well-known book, Understanding Media — extensions of man. But the connection between Mettler and Grant may seem more counterintuitive. Grant was one of the towering figures of Canadian philosophy, contributing on a wide range of topics, including Christian ethics, Canada-U.S. relations and, most famously, technology. And it is via technology that his connection to Mettler is clearest.

Although Grant is very clearly a Red Tory in a way that Mettler is most certainly not, the two share a deep and critical engagement with the ways in which knowledge and scientism are shaping our exterior and interior worlds in ways not yet fully comprehensible.

Indeed, Mettler’s earlier films share some of the concerns of Egoyan’s techno-obsessive early features. This is especially true of The Top of His Head, which is about a technophile salesman trying to move through an increasingly alienating world, barely able to engage with the wild landscapes that surround him (the wilds of Toronto as well as those of Northern Ontario). But it’s true of Mettler’s first feature film, Scissere (1982), as well: its protagonists try to make sense of their fragmented worlds, while each struggles with a fragmented consciousness. Mettler has emphasized that the quest for identity is a crucial theme of Scissere; this becomes apparent as the lives of three people (a heroin addict, a young mother, a scientist) intertwine deeply. The difficulty of locating a stable identity is exacerbated in the world Mettler presents to us in The Top of His Head, a world defined by a video technology that reproduces reality in a sterilized, anaesthetized way. Indeed, Mettler’s early films seem in dialogue with those of Egoyan’s films for which Mettler was the cinematographer, such as Next of Kin (1984) and especially Family Viewing (where he shared cinematographer credit with Robert Macdonald).

But unlike Egoyan’s early work, to say nothing of the comparatively straightforward work of McDonald or Rozema, Mettler’s early films largely dispense with narrative. His indifference to narrative, though, doesn’t lead him back to the didacticism of the narrative-unfriendly NFB, but rather toward a more open sense of what documentary cinema, and photography in general, can do. This goes well beyond the photography-influenced films of the fifties and sixties and departs from the form of the Griersonian documentary, as well as the neo- Griersonianism of direct cinema. And the social transformation that preoccupied the older generation of NFB filmmakers is basically uninteresting for Mettler. Instead, his films make use of long takes and handheld cameras to venture into the deep, unstable realms of the spiritual and psychological and to engage with the philosophical problems of modernity (an approach that connects him to Canadian documentarian Pierre Perrault). Mettler’s openness is clearly informed by the psychology and spirituality he has studied throughout his life.

Peter Mettler offers a model for a global cinema worth supporting. His career has been deeply influenced by an engagement with the particulars— geographical, philosophical, cinematic— of Canada, but it has never been limited by them. His work has restlessly expanded beyond Canada’s borders. This is also true of his relationship to Swiss culture: he is very much rooted in the landscape and social life of Switzerland, but he seeks to connect those details to a global experience. Globalization threatens, at this stage, to become a euphemism for a placeless, homogenous form of Americanized culture. As his films amply demonstrate, Mettler is as much opposed to this conception of the global flow of culture as he is committed to a genuine transcendence of all manner of boundaries. This is the global cinema we need.

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