copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media

Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006

Cinephilia and the travel film:
Gambling, Gods and LSD

by Catherine Russell

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

Technology, possession and cinema

As I have suggested elsewhere, filming people in trance marks the limits of subjectivity and of interpersonal knowledge. In trance, people are exhibitionists, but they are also “somewhere else,” somewhere the camera cannot follow, and where the interviewer’s questions cannot lead. The spectacle of people free of inhibitions is one that filmmakers cannot resist. From Maya Deren to Bill Viola, filmmakers have been drawn to the image of the possessed body, precisely because it challenges the will to knowledge invested in the ethnographer’s gaze. To his credit, Mettler distances himself slightly from these scenes of trance, refusing the lure of the spectacle by either muting the original soundtrack or, in the case of the Indian fire ritual or the Las Vegas neon signs, abstracting it into a light show.

In Experimental Ethnography I suggested that

“the difference between possession rituals and the filming of possession rituals is precisely the inscription of technology. The spectacle of ecstasy stands in for the experience of possession.”[4]

What is striking about Gambling, Gods and LSD is how this fall from experience is inscribed so thoroughly on every level. The handheld digital video, which is used in addition to 16mm film, is no doubt part of the explanation for this effect, as the image becomes a virtual extension of the filmmaker’s body. But equally important is the soundtrack, which is so carefully crafted. The film is itself a machine, or a vehicle, that may not take you out of your body, or out of time, but takes you into the pleasure machine of the cinema. I think that’s why it’s best watched outside, projected on a screen in the desert or in a laptop in the woods. In those conditions, one is better able to appreciate the technology behind the imagery of nature and humanity.

Alongside the landscape photography are key images and scenes of technologies. Images of broken hydro pylons and visits to Police Units in Cortez Colorado and Missile Sites in Arizona, and an inside look at Casino surveillance systems and high-tech workstations in India are part of the film’s inscription of technology. The demolition of the Aladdin theatre — another iconic image of experimental film — underlines the theme of failed dreams and left-over fantasy, of technological redundancy and high-tech overload. Technology is not to blame for the fallen world; nor is it the ticket out. And yet, technology and nature figure as the dialectical poles of transcendental experience.

The scene of the shooting of a Bollywood musical in Interlaken evokes Walter Benjamin’s discussion of the film shoot as a “hitherto unimaginable spectacle,” a second-degree realism that leads him to compare the filmmaker to a surgeon. Unlike the magician who heals by a laying on of hands, the surgeon heals by penetrating the body. Benjamin goes on to explain that it is

"another nature which speaks to the camera as compared to the eye. ‘Other’ above all in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious.”[5]

The camera introduces "unconscious optics" into the field of vision, rendering the image a "second nature", a reality that has been penetrated by a technology of desire. Benjamin's poetics are grounded in a materialist dialectic in which the body, the physis, is given a new dynamic of experience.

Miriam Hansen has recently gone back to Benjamin’s artwork essay and its multiple drafts to argue that Benjamin’s theory of cinema is premised on a notion of play. The radical ambivalence of his attitude toward film is grounded in an “anthropological materialism” in which technology and nature are brought together in the human body. But it is specifically a “collective body” or bodily collective, which is both agent and object of the human interaction with nature.”[6] Film is the technology most appropriate to what Benjamin understands as a revolutionary goal of fusing art and science; in Hansen’s terms,

“technology endows the collective with a new physis that demands to be understood and incorporated.”[7]

To the extent that these remarks resonate in Mettler’s film, they also suggest that his project needs to be slightly reconfigured to produce the knowledge that he ostensibly seeks. While his probing camera and calculated questions — Do you fly in your dreams? Do you know love? What are you afraid of? — articulate a search, it is the film itself that answers the question of meaning, not the interviewees. In his travels, he takes the cinema into a new relation with the global collective, transcending the nature/technology divide through his various encounters. The finished film potentially resumes this travelling when the collected images are transported and translated once again by different viewers.

Writing in the 1930s, Benjamin’s concern for humanity and social change were quite different than our perspective now in the early 21st century. Gambling, Gods and LSD has nothing to say about social change. Most people in the film are looking for ways to get out of everyday life, not to change it. Cultural critique and revolutionary goals play no part in this film, despite the clear indications of economic disparity and the emptiness of consumer culture. And yet, Mettler’s methodology, with all its idiosyncrasies and its highly personal frame of reference, offers valuable clues to the potential of cinematic practice in a fallen world. Like Benjamin, he proceeds by way of montage, speaking through others’ voices, to access another mode of being in the world, which is first and foremost, a mode of being among images, in the second nature of the cinema.

Gambling

Given the three words of this enigmatic title, “Gambling” is in a sense the third term, the added value, the new word of this movie. Gambling also figures prominently in Benjamin’s theorization of modernity. Alongside the cinema, it represents a new form of experience specific to urban life and its forms of perception arising in the nineteenth century. The gambler appears in The Arcades Project alongside the prostitute, with “the same supremely sinful delight: to challenge fate in pleasure.”[8] The gambler and the prostitute indulge in threshold experiences where the revolutionary side of technology can be perceived. Benjamin’s theories of cinema and modernity are grounded in a bifurcated notion of experience, one form of which [Erfahrung] is lost and vanishing; the other [Erlebnis] holds revolutionary potential, although in the Paris Arcades Erlebnis can be glimpsed only within the decline of auratic experience. For Benjamin, the gambler represents a new form of experience [Erlebnis] attuned to the shocks of industrial technology, experience appropriate to the emptying out of time, “no longer relying on experience [Erfahrung] in the sense of accumulated wisdom, memory and tradition.”[9]

The gambler, Benjamin says, “cannot make much use of experience,” in the strict (defunct) sense, because “the process of starting all over again is the regulative idea of gambling, as it is of work for wages.”[10] In his reliance on luck and fate, the gambler inscribes an ancient wisdom into a modern technology, relying on his body for a new kind of experience, which is indeed, a form of pleasure, a high, an intoxicant and an epiphany. Hansen sums up Benjamin’s interest in gambling as

“a model of mimetic innervation for a collective which seems to have all but lost, literally, its senses; which lacks that bodily presence of mind that could yet turn that threatening future into a fulfilled ‘now.’”[11]

Returning to Gambling, Gods and LSD in light of this theory, the parallelism of the two projects is striking. Mettler’s film is indeed concerned with a collective that has lost its senses. This is the image of everyday life with which we are presented at every turn. Those who seek transcendence are immersed in a striking banality of routine and ugliness. From Benjamin’s interest in gambling it is evident that the gambling of Mettler’s title is a stand-in for cinephilia. If spontaneity and contingency are the terrain of the gambler, they are also the conditions that the travelling filmmaker is faced with. More than conditions, they are also his terms of reference and his field of play. Gambling, Gods and LSD is a film that flows beyond the movie theatre, and might be grasped in fragments, in passing, and not necessarily as a whole. Mettler has used some of the outtakes in his VJ practice, creating trance effects on the metropolitan dance floor. In this respect the film might correspond to Martin Roberts’ notion of a postcolonial World cinema that is part of the larger continuum of media.[12]

Cinephilia is the transcendent gesture of the film, which is indeed made as a gamble. Perhaps this is only possible for a critic to say, as the filmmaker and his backers presumably had more confidence in the film’s potential outcome than to credit blind luck with its success. Nevertheless, Mettler admits that the film was a hard sell, proposed without a script or even a focus, other than the four principles stated earlier and a list of hokey questions. It was sold as a process, and it is the practice of filmmaking itself that ends up holding the whole house of cards together.

To say that the film is a gamble is also to recognize the danger involved in collecting images in an apparently haphazard way. This is an essay film that ultimately has nothing to say, except that this is what I found on my travels. Mettler proposes that the search for meaning, transcendence and identity is everyone’s search and that the film might provoke the viewer to ask themselves where they are going as a human being. However, it is more likely that viewers are looking for a cinematic experience first, and if they are lucky, the film will offer them that nebulous, ephemeral experience of having watched a “good film.” Indeed, they are lucky that Mettler’s wager paid off. We are lucky that he happened to see that boy running along that riverbank on that day, and that the filmmaker was there and he kept that image, and put it at the end of his film.[13] The knowledge of this good fortune is precisely the epistemology of the travel film.

Cinephilia refers to the passion with which people go to movies and write about movies. As a passion, or a desire, it embraces the subjective aspect of film studies as a discipline, and film going as a (pre)occupation. At the same time, it indicates the excesses of the medium and its champions. With the on-going emergence of new electronic technologies — video, DVD, multimedia and the Internet — cinephilia refers not only to the lost object of cinema, but to the passion of the collector of images. Cinephilia is a term riddled with contradictions and ambiguity, conflating expertise with subjective pleasures. The cinephile, for Metz, is precariously balanced between the “imaginary” pleasure of losing oneself in the image and the “symbolic” knowledge of its machinery and its codes.[14]

Cinephilia is essentially allegorical. It embraces precisely that doubleness or distance that Benjamin identifies in allegory. This last long take of Mettler’s film is a shot of leaving in which he finally registers the absolute division between him and his Indian subject. The cinema provides a bridge of understanding, which is created entirely from the artifice of the image, of fantasy, of what Benjamin calls the “phantasmagoria.” Mettler’s film constitutes a phantasmagoria through which the space of the dreaming collective may be glimpsed. The woman who sees Jesus while watching TV in her condominium is united, through the film, with the throngs of Indians worshipping a priestess, and they in turn are linked to the entranced viewer of Mettler’s film.

Notes

The film website is: gambling-gods-and-lsd.ch

In Canada, DVDs can be ordered directly from grimfilm@ca.inter.net

I would like to thank Katherine Lupton and Gilda Boffa for their help in the preparation of this essay.

1. Martin Roberts, “Baraka: World Cinema and the Global Culture Industry,” Cinema Journal Vol. 37 no. 3 (Spring 1998), p. 67.

2. Gambling, Gods and Mettler Featurette on DVD

3. Peter Weber, “A Perspective on the Process and Film,” Gambling, Gods and LSD DVD Special Feature.

4. Catherine Russell, Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), p.

5. Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of its Reproducibility (Third Version)"  trans. Harry Zohn and Edmund Jephcott Selected Writings Vol. 4 ed. Michael W. Jennings et al. (Cambridge Mass: Belknap/Harvard, 2003): 266.

6. Miriam Bratu Hansen, “Room-For-Play: Benjamin’s Gamble with Cinema,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring 2004), p. 10.

7. Hansen, p. 10.

8. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge Mass: Harvard UP, 1999), p. 489.

9. Hansen, p. 6.

10. Benjamin, “Some Motifs on Baudelaire,” Selected Writings  Vol. 4, p. 331.

11. Hansen, p. 8.

12. Roberts, p. 78.

13. Mettler describes how he chanced upon this scene in the Gambling, Gods and Mettler Featurette on DVD.

14. Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, trans. Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster and Alfred Guzzetti, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), p.15.


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