Gambling, Gods and LSD
Cinephilia and the travel film

by Catherine Russell

Electroacoustic music and ambient sound.

“When you see the Holy Spirit it hits you so hard you get knocked out.”

Preacher: “Let’s find out who’s from across the Atlantic”

Preacher: “Let’s go to the far east, Japan?”

Music over lady having an ecstatic moment after having had a vision of Jesus.

The travel cinemas of Jean Rouch, Johannes van der Keuken, Chantal Akerman, Bill Viola, Chris Marker and many others offer a cinematic view of global culture. Collectively, these filmmakers have posed the question of cinematic epistemology, suggesting that a specific form of knowledge may be conveyed in the travel film. Is it possible that travelling filmmakers have opened up different forms of transcultural knowledge? Identified as artists, or auteurs, or independent filmmakers, they place themselves and their desire for images centrally within their work. As travellers, they are also collectors. Back home, at the editing tables and in the mixing studios, the filmmakers work over their collections, sifting them for details, shaping them and structuring them, even altering them and changing them to produce compositions of images and sounds. The travel itself becomes a memory, while the encounters with people and places are reconfigured as experiences that can be shared with new people, called viewers, in new places, which more and more extend beyond the movie theatre.

Peter Mettler’s film Gambling, Gods and LSD (2001) is an example of the kind of travel film that Martin Roberts classifies as the “cosmopolitan cinema of the international avant-garde.”[1] Roberts is slightly disdainful of the

“We want to experience all of God that there is to experience.”

Christian rock. Electroacoustic music.

Electroacoustic music.

Narration by Mettler : “I follow water everywhere.”

Electroacoustic music.

“We take them out of their everyday mindset.”

bourgeois tourist who lurks within the alibi of the flaneur-filmmaker travelling the world in search of the new and different. Peter Mettler’s journey is very much a personal journey, and the idiosyncrasies of the film are very much those of the flaneur, distanced ever so slightly from the curiosities of everyday life. And I will be the first to admit that there is something just a bit annoying about the filmmaker’s naïveté, as he probes and prods with his camera while suturing and soothing with his soundtrack. And yet the film suggests that there is a mode of knowledge, a way of being in the world that is specific to cinema. I would like to suggest that through its overlaying of ethnographic and experimental methods of representation, Gambling Gods and LSD brings into play an epistemological form of cinephilia.

The experience of watching this three-hour experimental documentary might be described as entrancing, although that term would not fully capture the curiosity that it provokes, or the intellectual dimension that it is explicit about having. As a journey, the film is about its own making as well as being about the images collected. Mettler says it has four organizing principles: “transcendence, the denial of death, our relationship with nature, and the illusion of safety.” He also says it’s about how “we” look for meaning in our lives, how people have found escapes and epiphanies in different ways; and it’s about “how we form our identity.”[2]

That’s an awful lot for a film to take on. Gambling, Gods and LSD is an epic film in its ambition and scope; but it is also highly resistant to explanation or interpretation. In many ways it is a film that denies the critic an entry point because of its refusal to play any single game. Moreover, Mettler’s investment in the film is at once its focal point and a substitute for “meaning.” The autobiographical, diarist mode of personal filmmaking is raised to the level of a quest, which is at once a search for sounds and images, for people and places; but also a quest for an experience that is ultimately incommunicable.

“You just don’t know, you gotta suspect everybody.”

Electroacoustic music.

Electroacoustic music.

Poster reads; “Bringing human sexuality into the 21st century”

Mettler: “Is there anything that you’re really passionate about?”

Many of Mettler’s interviewees articulate different methods and experiences of transcendence, and yet the film is stuck in the banality of everyday life. To my mind, the achievement of Gambling, Gods and LSD is also its failure; its attempts to translate the diversity of experience continually fall back on the limits of cinematic representation. For all the talk of fantasy, dream, visions, hallucinations and subjective experiences, the film is also an essay on the banality of the everyday lives from which people want to escape. At the same time, through its own its transformation of experience into spectacle, in its indulgence in the otherness of exotic experience, the film itself provides a form of escape.

This is not a criticism of the film, but a means of opening up its tensions and contradictions, without which it might have been a crystal-gazing, new-agey, feel-good, pseudo-intellectual exploration of cultural diversity and one-world harmony. If it is not such a film, it is because the question of knowledge remains an open one. Mettler takes the diary mode of the travel film as an experiment in transcending the limitations of image culture. In doing so, he has produced an epistemological treatise on trans-cultural knowledge, a treatise which, I will argue, underlines the role of cinephilia in global industrial modernity.

Mettler: “What are you afraid of?”  Man: “Me”

“I knew that I was feeling Christ’s scars…but it just happened one night when I was watching TV.”

Sound of explosion backwards.

Explosion, cheering and clapping.

Man kissing the bones of his dead wife. Voice-over : “An understanding of something that goes beyond circumstances. Something that’s more basic. More fundamental.”

Electroacoustic music (View from plane going to Switzerland.)

Electroacoustic music, plane sounds (model planes)


The journey of the film

The four sites of the film — Toronto, Las Vegas, Switzerland and Southern India — are linked by shots of airplanes, airports and air traffic control towers. Air travel becomes a metaphor for transcendent experience, global transit, and even for filmmaking itself. The air traffic controller’s console is made analogous to the editing suite, organizing the confluences and conversations between geographic sites.[3] In each of the places Mettler travels to, he shoots the landscape, he finds people to interview, and he finds crowds of people engaged in some kind of uplifting experience. In Toronto, it’s the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship Church experiencing religious ecstasy. Dressed in mall-wear, they are inspired by bad rock music, confessions of mystical revelation and an evangelical preacher.

Mettler’s interviewees include drug users and former users, academic and non-academic experts and intellectuals, an ex-prisoner, and various people who have had profound religious experiences. In many cases, their confessional commentary is laced with references to the banal, the tacky, and the supremely mundane. For example, Mettler interviews a woman strapped to an electro stimulation chair wearing a red satin bustier. He asks her about her pleasures and she talks about cooking pasta and talking to her parents, sounding like the dullest person you’ve ever met. The inventor of the chair, the C.E.O. of Paradise Electro Stimulations, claims to be afraid of his own power, even while he bums cigarettes from his staff. His theories of fantasy are only slightly more esoteric than the biochemist in Switzerland who has scientifically proven that “we are all one organism,” and therefore we never die.

A recovering drug addict in Toronto hopes to straighten out so that he can “buy a Mac and get a girlfriend.” Almost all the scenes in Las Vegas are predictably ironic, given the backdrop of superficial excess. In India, except for Laughter Heaven, the irony thins out, although even there, a man explains that after great penance, in preparation to view a certain idol, the faithful close their eyes when finally confronted with the image. The ethnographic orientation of the film constitutes an ongoing tension with the mystical experiences that people describe. Their fantasies and extraordinary methods of transcendence are in inverse proportion to the emptiness and destitution of their everyday lives.  One cannot help but consider the relation between transcendence and the many fantastical ways of escaping a world of poverty, consumer capitalism and inequality, of which the cinema is of course the greatest route of escape that we all share, a means by which we can temporarily transcend worldly cares.

Narration by Mettler: “The further I go, the more I see the similarities. The same desires, gestures, the same questions.  Like the impulse behind my travels to record. Like the impulse to make meaning.”

Narration by Mettler: “Switzerland, the perfect world of my parents.”

Wind, electroacoustic music.

Electroacoustic music, almost like a vibration.

Techno music.

Tropical music.

Gambling, Gods and LSD is clearly not only about seeking transcendence, but is also about the cinematic quest for the secret of transcendental experience, and Mettler is often distracted from his mission. In India he is stared down by a cripple just after pondering, “Maybe there’s a difference between looking for something and just looking.” His hand-held camera is rarely static. It constantly roves over its subjects, picking out details, zooming into extreme close-ups, cutting things up and even drawn to set-pieces and staged tableaux. This is a film in constant movement. The search and the journey are inscribed on the level of representation, so we are never just looking. We are constantly being drawn into, drawn away from, and led through audio and image dissolves from one intriguing scene to the next. Indeed, the movement is due to sound effects as much as visual effects. The mix of ambient sounds with Fred Frith’s compositions and various musical samples creates an atmospheric space of trance-like contemplation. The absurdity of much of the imagery is contained and absorbed by the soothing hub of the soundscape.

Interspersed within the human encounters are shots of rivers, rocks, deserts, mountains and caves. Again, Mettler chooses unconventional angles to provoke different views. Rocks and water are shot in close-up compositions, often without horizons. Reflective shorelines are used to structure the image, as we are pulled along by boat-mounted cameras. The film does not, in fact, ask about our relation to nature. It pushes our noses in it, aestheticizing, shaping and containing the image of nature within the film’s own journey and quest for meaning. The rushing power of a waterfall, the smooth lines of desert dunes, and the symmetry of reflected trees become abstractions for the traveller. Monuments of presentness, of singularity, these natural formations also speak of the filmmaker’s presence before them. Nature speaks back to the camera like the people in trance do, without words, but with the expressive forms of movement, sound, colour and light.

(Continued: Technology, possession, and cinema)

Swiss scientist talking; “…mitochondria, the exchange of genetic material between bacteria…” and dance music.

“We are part of nature, maybe much more than we think.”

Ambient sounds.

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