At Visions du Réel, Canadian/Swiss filmmaker Peter Mettler discussed films, time and flying (with all of its inherent contradictions), during a fascinating two-hour online conversation with Jean Perret (critic and former Visions du Réel director) and Emmanuel Chicon (Member of the Selection Committee, Visions du Réel).
When Peter Mettler is asked about flying, something he has admitted to disliking but a practice he nevertheless undertakes a lot in both business and creative capacities, he gets straight to the point.
“You are addressing something that is right in the centre of the paradox of my relationship to making films,” he says. “On the one hand I embrace this amazing technology that allows us to see more deeply into our environment, that allows…all kinds of further explorations because of the technologies of seeing and hearing and reading detail. And [it adds to] an exploration of inner worlds, of expression, of dreams, and it’s a fantastic extension of our experience and exploration.”
“But that same time it’s a separating mechanism from that real world… So as much as it’s incredible to be able to fly to another country and immerse yourself, you also have to question it. Is it too much? Is it taking us out of the present where we live and the appreciation of the very things that are around us? Is it distracting us too much?”
During the masterclass we were invited to watch an extended sequence from Mettler’s Gambling, Gods and LSD (2002), which featured a Las Vegas-based bungee-jumping pair of newly-weds, and the celebrated scene of an imploding hotel, seen from the perspective of a tattoed woman (á la Man Ray) lying on a bed in a hotel room opposite. Critic Perret asked about Mettler’s idiosyncratic decision to manipulate his material by reversing images within the frames, and what this was designed to achieve.
“They are about recontextualising things that we are used to seeing,” Mettler answered. “In the case of the bungee-jumping couple, first of all it’s absurd, it’s Las Vegas, they’re getting married and jumping off a platform bound together. This is the way that they celebrate their love which is a fantastic American [thing]… but then the film keeps looking after that sensational moment… and they are waiting to be pulled back into normal, non-bungee jumping life.”
“And when we flip this image…it’s so absurd because they are upside down, anti-gravity, with their hair standing on end, and the groom is kind of reaching out [to grab] the rope that is going to pull them into the future. So it’s this very poignant portrait of a couple deciding to be together and stepping into the future. All those things I felt were being evoked by this kind of trick of turning something upside down.”
Of the woman in the hotel room (Justine) with violin-hole tattoos on her back, who witnesses the hotel de-imploding (in reverse shot) out of her window, he stressed how, “it wasn’t my intention to quote Man Ray, it was really this person I met, and she has this tattoo… That’s the beauty of working this way. The things you encounter are much more fantastical than the things you can dream up in research, when you are not out there in the world.”
Mettler further stressed how this cinematic moment effectively conjoined two storylines, that of the tattoed Justine, and of the family who run the building demolition business, and how further reference to their back stories was rendered unnecessary.
“Both of those stories got taken out of the final edit, and all you have is the moment of the implosion and Justine in the bed with the violin holes on her back, but that shows you how those things came to be, following different pathways and relationships and… in the editing process sculpting and weaving it together,” he said.
The conversation moved onto Mettler’s highly lauded The End of Time (2012), whose raison d’etre the director outlined.
“The End of Time was a bit of a peculiar film because it actually started as a film about clouds, about meteorology, that was one of my main focusses,” he explained. “First of all, a sub-film came out of it, which was Petropolis, an examination of The Alberta Tar Sands, which is one of the world’s largest oil extraction sites.”
“But as I pursued clouds and meteorology, it became a film about [how] observing change is obviously something we do as a species – and we call that ‘time’.
“There are so many contexts in which time has been discussed or expressed, and here I am doing it again as well, and I felt quite a strong weight because of that,” he added.
“That said, the film is very personal, and it encounters very specific people that I met along the way… and it includes to a great extent this idea that film is a time medium. It is, as Tarkovsky called it, ‘sculpting in time’ and the very experience of watching the film that you are watching is a process of contemplating what it means to be, what it means to be in time. The film really could have been called The Time Being.”
VdR selection committee member Emmanuel Chicon then asked Mettler about his particular and all-encompassing use of sound.
“Sound and music and voice and ambient sound, all those things are very important to the totality of the film, and that work begins with filming,” he answered. “Already as we are out in the world, I am collecting music I hear that is relevant to the emotions or the place that I am experiencing, also recording ambiences, noticing the differences. Even these days, the ambience around this house [his Canadian home] is very different because of the silences incurred by Covid. Sound is always telling a story one way or another.”
He continued on the theme: “Sound can be more evocative than image, because it is invisible. It’s suggestive, because it enters us in a different way, so all the time during production, sounds are being collected, and then in the editing process… from that point on, everything is cut together. So as the visual edit is happening, so is the sound edit, so is the spoken word, whether it’s my voice-over or a character voice-over. All those things are happening at the same time, because I really feel that they are one thing. They`re informing each other.”
Perret asked, given Mettler’s penchant for and expertise in aerial shots, whether it was the dream of every director to shoot from the sky, “and become God, having a view from above.”
“No I don’t,” Mettler laughed, “but I think it’s interesting, the idea of that perspective of the earth. [Ttaking to the air] is something that we as a species have actually physically not been able to do very long… The first time a physical human body was up in the air was in one of these balloons looking down.”
“But it’s interesting in other traditions, aboriginal/Australia, where their history and their stories are illustrated on the ground as aerial views, and also in shamanistic practices [we see] references to seeing that perspective, so perhaps we have travelled there in other ways, if only in our minds.”
He added how, in the case of Petropolis, the aerial shoot “was completely because of security reasons, so it was an aesthetic that was generated by our inability on the ground to be able to film anything. As soon as we appeared with a camera, security would remove us, and ironically the only legal place we could be was up in the air, a thousand feet up, looking down.”
Before the festival Peter Mettler posted the following notice/request on the Visions du Réel website:
An invitation to imagine the other side
“In just a matter of days a biological invisible entity has brought the world to its knees begging for mercy. Many of us are engaged in a quiet resistance, trying to stop a quickly spreading fire. Now we have a great opportunity to reflect upon how we have been living our lives.
Paradoxically, our presence is globally inter-connected to one another by our fragile technologies of image and sound, wires and pulses – these things that seem ever more a part of our biology, our nature.
I consider myself lucky, because I have been holed up editing a film series for the last months already. Just a few months ago I was out in the big real world, filming and meeting people and asking them what the expression “the grass is always greener on the other side” means to them.
This expression has taken on yet another relevance. Now, during this rupture of our usual hectic activity, is a chance to imagine and start creating our future lives. To cultivate our gardens – of science, community, technology and dirt. To make and keep our grass green.
On the occasion of this virtual Visions du Reel, I’d like to invite any of you filmmakers or participants of the festival to contribute a little piece of cinema. Something that observes what is happening now, or that considers what life might be like on the other side of this experience. It can be a dream, an intuition, a proposition, or a simple fragment of perception.
I’d be honored to receive and assemble a collection of your thoughts and points of view for a future presentation at VdR and for possible integration into the series project we are currently working on. Any moving image or sound, from one to ten minutes – or texts – all are welcome.”
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