Lost in the Moment: Peter Mettler on The End of Time

After travelling through such far-flung sites as Detroit, Hawaii, India, and the geek-tacular labyrinth that is CERN’s Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Peter Mettler’s latest documentary finally leaves the material world altogether, arriving at a ripping pool of sounds and images that rates as the most splendiferously trippy sequence of the filmmaker’s career. Yet there’s a moment in The End of Time that may be more mind-bending (and time-bending) than the spectacular finale of Mettler’s inquiry into matters generally reserved for physicists, philosophers, and voyagers of astral planes.

It consists of a view of Mettler’s editing suite in his Toronto home, a dark space that is enlivened by the images on a video monitor (such as an Indian funeral pyre) as well as the shifting conflagration of shadow and daylight on the wall and ceiling beyond the desk. Brief and unexpected, the scene calls attention not just to the construction of the film we’re watching, but more peculiar conditions that are pertinent to Mettler’s practice and to his new film in particular. One is the paradoxical situation that requires a filmmaker like Mettler—who splits his time between Canada and Switzerland—to live as both nomad and hermit. He may need to travel the globe for years in order to collect the extraordinary images that fill films like Gambling, Gods and LSD (2003), his acutely personal investigation into humankind’s perpetual quest for transcendence. And yet the task of stitching them together into some kind of whole ultimately forces him to curb his peripatetic tendencies and spend endless hours in this dimly lit room, fingers twitching over mouse and keyboard. This may be a reason why Mettler has devoted so much energy in recent years to developing visual mixing software that promises to alleviate the tedium of this process and allow for the possibility of real-time live performance.

The other condition evoked by this moment in The End of Time has more to do with—you guessed it—time. In Mettler’s view, cinema functions as a kind of “time machine,” one that can merge a huge array of different temporalities into one continuous, essentially atemporal stream experienced over the course of a film’s duration, which in the case of The End of Time is either 109 or 114 minutes. (Much to Mettler’s chagrin, North Americans will see a longer version due to the differences in frame rates; he found the latter “painfully slow” the one time he was able to watch it.)

The sudden revelation of Mettler’s editing suite is just one moment worth exploring (or exploding) in a film that is ridden with wormholes and fissures. That he dares to cap off the climactic sequence—which he refers to as “Mixxa”—with a tidy bit of Mobius-looping is entirely keeping with the Herzogian spirit of adventure that informs the whole of The End of Time. While a film that hinges on the question “What is time?” ought to be un-watchably pretentious (and Mettler’s voiceover narration and his interviewees’ statements occasionally prompt a red flag in that regard—though it’s intentional), the framework that the query creates allows for Mettler and his subjects to temporarily reconcile a bewildering array of binaries: science and religion, art and nature, the eternal and the ephemeral. Just as likely to discern an element of the sublime in a Hawaiian lava flow as he is in the most rusted corners of post-industrial Detroit, Mettler remains one of the planet’s most astute (and patient) cinematographers. That attention to detail(s) is matched by The End of Time’s almost impossibly dense and intricately designed soundtrack, which integrates natural sources with original music by a variety of composers as well as Autechre, Thomas Köner and Plastikman (the latter’s alter ego Richie Hawtin is also featured as an onscreen subject).

At the end of these many and varied travels, we arrive at a film that is Mettler’s most readily engaging since Picture of Light—his 1994 ode to the majesty of the Northern Lights as witnessed from northern Manitoba—yet also his most experimental and intellectually provocative. Anyone who emerges from Mettler’s time machine will know that the time he spent toiling in that editing suite—as well as at the performance in Paris which turned out to be a first stab at the synapse-fryer that is Mixxa—did not go to waste.

Cinema Scope: Setting off to make a film based on the question “What is time?” seems daunting to say the least. How did you begin to break down this particular eternal quandary into something a little more manageable?

Peter Mettler: It was clear to me from the beginning that you can ask that question and there’s no real answer. I did a lot of research and looked in a lot of directions, so I knew it would be overwhelming. But I didn’t know it would lead to this idea that, “Actually, you know what? Everything is time.” As one of the scientists in the film puts it, “Time means we are.” It’s the framework we use to organize our perception. I wanted to ask the question to see where it led me, rather than try to look at all the different thinking about, and possibilities of, time. That would be too vast even if you made a series about it—it could also become too trite. So the film is more about our perception of time than anything else.

Scope: The film nevertheless delves into examples of different kinds and concepts of time. We’re certainly made to feel aware of how time takes on various meanings if the context is geological, quantum, astronomical, seasonal, cinematic, or even generational. Did this become a way of creating some parameters for a topic that may otherwise be infinite in scope?

Mettler: I did choose certain kinds of time because there are so many. Then I could choose a set of things I could explore. That’s how I approach my films, as explorations. I don’t know what I’m going to find, so the process becomes a combination of research and exploration. You find what you find and then divine a structure out of the material you have. One idea that was already happening during the writing and researching of this film was about the Alberta tar sands. By chance, Greenpeace called me to recommend someone to do some cinematography work for them, and I told them that I was interested in researching it myself. That just blossomed into a whole other thing which became Petropolis (2009). But had that film not come out of it, it might’ve not even have made it into The End of Time. If it had, it probably would have ended up being a small passage. That happened in Gambling, Gods and LSD: I’d shoot a fair bit of material around different instances and then in the final film they’d end up being one image or two shots.

Scope: One danger with this process is creating a huge surplus of footage you can never use. Was that an issue here, especially given that The End of Time is much more concise than Gambling, Gods and LSD?

Mettler: I was careful with this film in terms of the number of subjects because I was quite frustrated in Gambling, Gods and LSD by how much I couldn’t use. There was so much left out of the final edit of the film—not just more shots but actual subjects and people and other interesting things. Compared to a model for TV or the internet, the feature-film model is fairly time-restrictive. It has its own laws and you have to obey them.

Scope: Since you weren’t so compelled to cram an excess of material into such a limited space, did you feel like you had greater control over the film’s own sense of rhythm and flow? It’s remarkably varied.

Mettler: That’s not premeditated at all. Even now, if you ask me what the structure of the film is, I find it fairly obtuse. The way it’s structured doesn’t add up to something familiar to me. I must say that’s something I like. Johan van der Keuken inspired me the most in this respect. He let the experience of the filming and the subjects determine the lengths of his scenes. In his films you have very long scenes around certain things and very quick ones around others, but it doesn’t serve an overarching, expected architecture. I like that because I think it’s closer to the truth of how we experience things. The arc of our lives is pretty predictable in terms of how we age and how our bodies age. But in terms of day-to-day experience, especially if we’re open to letting the thing that’s happening right now take you somewhere, the time frames can be radically short or long. You might end up looking at a landscape for several hours and then the next thing you know, you’re in a car speeding by that same landscape at 120 km/h and your thought process is completely different.

Scope: The End of Time’s many visual motifs give it another sort of structure as well. Along with the clouds and smoke, the most striking are the huge array of circular shapes, especially those enormous discs we see at CERN. The movie presents them as if they’re these ornate, high-tech mandalas. When did you make this link between them and the more explicitly religious symbols we see elsewhere?

Mettler: Only very late. The footage at CERN was shot during our research stage because we couldn’t go down there once the particles had started crashing. When we asked about going initially, they said, “If you want to film come now because you won’t be able to film anything later.” I hadn’t really formed a lot of ideas about what I wanted to do; I just knew I was interested in this place. When I saw those discs—they’re particle detectors—I immediately made this association with Buddhism and other mandalic symbols and thought, “Hmm, that could be interesting.” That was the extent of it. But they kept popping up, and I started to wonder why these circular or spherical shapes were so attractive. In physics, when particles collide, they go out in a sphere. According to the Big Bang Theory, that’s what created our universe, so everything in the universe is spherical. So it makes sense that you would make something round to meditate upon. It went up a notch when my friend Bruno Degazio and Christos Hatzis created this audiovisual composition called Harmonia [Mettler integrates it into the “Mixxa” sequence]. It’s actually a picture of harmonics: there are 64 harmonics in all and each time there’s an added harmonic, you get a line. So the second harmonic connects two points on the circle, the third harmonic three points on the circle, the fourth four, and so on up to 64. And you hear each of those harmonics as well. This goes back to ideas of Plato and the Music of the Spheres. So all this stuff started intertwining conceptually and visually—I don’t have a thesis about it, but there seem to be a lot of relationships with these spherical patterns that we use in science and religion and now music as well. You start to connect all these dots together and offer that to the viewer as an experience, as part of the meditation.

Scope: Given all that, is it fair to consider The End of Time a meditation object?

Mettler: That was true for me at the outset. It was all it really could be. I couldn’t say anything definitive about time—you just can’t. So many people have theorized about it already, and like I said, that wasn’t my objective. So it really is a meditation on time using the time machine that is cinema.

Scope: How did you get interested in Richie Hawtin? He’s a big presence here due both to the Plastikman tracks on the soundtrack and his relationship with Detroit, one of your primary sites of exploration.

Mettler: I’d talked to him a couple of times before. I find there’s a cinematic character to his work, less so in Plastikman than in some of the remixing stuff he does with other people’s music. It has a real sense of arc and journey and I was really attracted to that. I initially sought him out because I wanted to try my live visual mixing software with him. In the meantime he became a superstar. I had also been developing software with Greg Hermanovic, whose company was responsible for the visual systems that accompany Plastikman in the scene you see. Plus, I was already interested in shooting in Detroit and at a certain point it became clear that we could cross Richie and these communities in Detroit. My reason for bringing techno into the film was that it was born in Detroit, so it was kind of born in the ruins of this industrial age. Techno is emblematic of the digital age, so it’s interesting to see this digital form come out of this wasteland of the industrial age. At the same time, we see how nature is taking over these structures again as these young new communities buy out entire blocks and plant gardens and create an alternative for who knows how long. All that is very visible in Detroit—you see it walking the streets.

Scope: Another fascinating figure is the man we see in Hawaii living in the last house in a community that’s otherwise been destroyed by lava flows from the Kilauea volcano. How did your quest lead to him?

Mettler: That was something I heard about when I was there. I was drawn to the lava and the effects of the magma. It’s amazing because you can see fresh flows and how they burn through forests and how they’ve covered up structures. All you see is the remnants of metals because they don’t burn—you’ll see a submerged bus, for instance. So I was on this exploratory trek for weeks, though the lava flows I’d wanted to see had basically turned off for the first time in years just as I arrived! This fellow Jack Thompson had become a kind of legend around there. His house was part of a suburban colony on the Big Island. There’d been a bridge built behind it so the lava would always go around; this went on for years and years. Everybody else left, and he was there by himself, cut off with no roads. He used to ride his motorcycle over the lava a few miles to the last road. Then he hitchhiked with helicopters. It was crazy, and it’s such an amazing spot. But a few months ago, the lava finally took his house. It was too bad because you do want to root for him.

Scope: Given that so much of the film presents people and places in a manner that is relatively concrete, was it a difficult decision to send viewers off into the more abstract space in the Mixxa sequence?

Mettler: It’s funny because a lot of the creative pathways of making this kind of work are really the result of this organic approach—it’s a matter of pursuing how things unfold and pursuing experiences. In a way, it’s about paying attention to where the path of least resistance takes you. It’s like what happened with Petropolis and the tar sands: there’s something being offered to you, and you may not understand it, but you look at it and then you go, “Oh, this is connecting to something else.” Or else you’re applying what you’re interested in already and make the two connect: you have that lens on. In terms of how Mixxa happened, I had been doing these performances and developing this software quite intensely for the last several years. Performing like this is an improvisational experience in a similar way that a musician plays their instrument with other people. There was an offer to do a live show in Paris with two of the musicians I work with, Gabriel Scotti and Vincent Haenni. Since I was in the middle of editing, I thought, “OK, I’m going to make this part of the film, then. I’m going to use film material and they’re going to use sounds related to the film and we’re going to improvise totally.” So it began with us improvising for this show. Then I started working with a recording of it and it became part of the film. None of the imagery from the performance is in there any more, though some of the sound is. It was reworked over another year before it became what it was.

Scope: It still has traces of that original spontaneity, which is an unusual quality for any film given how labourious and meticulous the editing process tends to be. Did it feel liberating to use the software to do this real-time version of what typically takes months or years of very finicky work?

Mettler: It does. And that’s something almost all of the other arts have been able to do. In dance, you can have your choreography but say, “OK, today let’s just go.” It’s the same with music or even writing, when you do associative or free writing. In film, it’s quite hard to do that. You can do it with a camera to a degree because you’re responding to what’s unfolding, but in editing it’s such a slow and cantankerous process of move/edit/cut. You can get into a trance and do it, but it’s very hard to do in real time unless you use this kind of software.

Scope: So in a sense, Mixxa is not only the point at which the viewer’s perception of time finally dissolves. It’s also a really cool software demo.

Mettler: Yeah, right! But I’m pretty convinced also that this is at least one avenue that expressions of image and sound are going to go down, or are already going down. This technology will create those kinds of experiences. We’ve always been able to superimpose images, but in very different ways to what you can do now digitally and performatively. Being able to do this in real time is a very recent development, to actually be able to “perform” one image by laying it over another and another and play it all like music. So the technology plays a big part in creating a connection between the expression and our perception.