The French première of Peter Mettler’s new work Petropolis at the scrappy Festival OFNI in Poitiers (this year devoted to Canada) took place at a planetarium, in what the organisers called “un lieu scientifique.” How right they were. Shot on HD video, Petropolis is comprised entirely of aerial images of the landscape surrounding and comprising the Alberta tar sands. The film is less an apocalyptic vision of environmental destruction than it is an exploration, a series of discoveries. In some ways its closest cinematic cousin is Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (1991), a study of the fires in the oil wells of post-Gulf War I Kuwait. But with Herzog’s ponderous voiceover taking an extra-terrestrial perspective, that film posed as a work of science fiction. Mettler’s is a work of science. His ability to use that video image to render the landscape in an expressive way puts him closer to artists like Zacharias Kunuk or Alexander Sokurov than Herzog; he chooses video because the medium’s sense of flow, combined with the relative flatness of the image, is genuinely suited to the subject matter.
This becomes especially evident in a typically graceful shot where, shooting from a helicopter, Mettler moves along a “tailings pond” (the oil industry’s preferred term for a lake-size deposit of toxic waste). The image begins as a blur of green with black dots, dots that seem to turn into a kind of tear that runs across the green. But as he moves further along, approaching this tannish greenish mass, small currents of water become slowly visible. Because the video image is relatively flat, the change in perspective that allows the currents to become visible happens almost imperceptibly; the landscape seems to be getting bigger, but it’s such a blob of colour that this isn’t immediately evident. The emergence into the visible field of these tiny currents makes that clear, and it has a kind of startling beauty. But the accompanying aesthetic pleasure is undercut immediately by the colour scheme’s link to other images of destruction. The currents among the brown and green are a revelation, but they’re inseparable from the earlier black tears, or from the massive clouds of exhaust that the (mostly unseen) helicopter moved through in order to get there.
Mettler uses those clouds as a transitional device throughout. In some ways this is a simple visual trick to make cutting more invisible. But the recurring use of clouds also emphasises the degree to which the events on the ground are linked to what is being dumped into the air. Early in Petropolis, when we see the tailings ponds for the first time, the helicopter moves smoothly above brown water and the camera tilts up slightly, into the glare off the water. That glare fills the visual field, making the image all white, and when we emerge from that visual overload it’s into a shot of clouds that slowly give way to reveal the city of Fort MacMurray. Water, air, metropolis: this is the unholy trinity that Mettler presents as defining the oil sands, the combination that has turned an area bigger than England into an utterly unrecognisable other-world.
Mettler links seemingly disparate spaces—ground, city, air—by the use of zooms. In this same sequence, the helicopter moves past the city, over into a clear-cut forest, with smokestacks visible in the distance. Mettler cuts in slightly closer, but that new shot then zooms into the smoke coming from those stacks; he then zooms back out, to where the shot was before, then back even further still. His zoom across such an enormous space is very effective in conveying both the vastness of the landscape and the degree to which all of its elements are intertwined. Inseparably part of the same system, we see them now as part of the same image. The adjustment in perspective that this seeing entails is startling, and offers a sharp indictment of the scale of destruction on view.
Despite being commissioned by Greenpeace, this isn’t an exercise in green didacticism. In addition to being filled with complex, expressive compositions and camera movements, Petropolis also has viscerally moving moments where Mettler readjusts his focus, such as when his camera moves past an odd shot of about a dozen three-story dump trucks and onto some giant towers, discharging flames. He zooms in on the flames but when he gets close enough he has to shift the focus a bit; the movement of the flames then takes on a flow that’s quite specific to the video image. Something similar happens when he has to tilt the camera down along an open pit. Shifting the focus, the tops and bottoms of the frame wobble up and down, and the warping looks like something out of a James Broughton film. This kind of distortion provides the kind of abstract pleasure at the core of most experimental cinema. But it also speaks to the ontological readjustment that anyone looking at this sort of landscape is constantly engaging in. HD video and zoom lenses can only do so much. This sort of landscape regularly flummoxes those ways of seeing, making their limitations fully visible, if only for a moment. When the viewer re-emerges from that challenge sometimes the result is revelatory—seeing the unhurried flow of flames for the first time—and sometimes it’s fairly horrible, seeing all-too-clearly the complete destruction of the open pit.
Mettler’s marriage of the aesthetic gestures of experimental film to a rigorous ethic of inquiry is also visible in the way that he uses words, both via text and his own voiceover. Throughout he uses simple text like “Tailings Ponds” and “Bitumen Upgrader” superimposed on the screen both as section dividers and simple explanations of where we are at any time. But at the end of the 43-minute film we hear Mettler’s voice, and he speaks here not in the idiom of the environmental documentary but in that of Gambling, Gods and LSD (2002), his essayistic meditation on transcendence and globalization. One crucial stream of that film was Mettler’s interest in Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD, who Mettler describes as a fairly traditional but very philosophical scientist (there is television footage in Gambling, Gods and LSD of Hofmann saying he became a chemist “for philosophical reasons”). In Petropolis’ closing sequence he casts a similar light on Karl Clark, the scientist who devised the technology to separate bitumen from sand. Over more images of dusty landscapes and the black lines that suddenly tear through them, Mettler tells how Clark used his wife’s washing machine to perfect the chemistry, but then felt guilt-ridden when shown the destruction that his technology had made possible. The film closes with Mettler reflecting on how the sun’s life is 15 billion years, and that we have made “ingenious” use of petroleum for 80. “What will we do next?” he asks. He means this as an actual question, not as some rhetorical gesture that hints at an imminent apocalypse. And that’s what he finds so attractive in the spirits of Hofmann and Clark: their love of the question. Neither man pretended that science was just a series of abstract inquiries; both lived to see their most celebrated contributions used in ways which they found alienating. But Mettler discovers in them people who were animated by uncertainty, by a desire to see more clearly, and by a sure faith in the vocation of science as something that gives us a closer perspective on the things we don’t quite understand.
Like Mettler’s previous epics of exploration Gambling, Gods and LSD and Picture of Light (1994), Petropolis is a work animated by the powerful desire to discover the unknown, and but by an equally powerful humility before the formidable challenges that this unknown throws up against our senses and the technology that seeks to extend those senses. Arguments about climate change always seem to come down to “the science.” The science is inconclusive, says the oil industry. The science is indisputable, say the greens. Petropolis, I say to them both, is the science. This is what the spirit of inquiry looks like. This is the work that must be done.