For a year on the film festival circuit, I kept running into people, shiny-eyed and zealous, who'd seen the film Gambling, Gods and LSD. Even normally articulate critics would be at a loss for words when trying to describe Peter Mettler's documentary about - well, transcendence, or "the state of people," as the director himself says at one point during its course. "It's, uh... amazing," they'd say. "Almost like nothing you've ever seen..." And then they'd go all vague. Not having viewed it was like being excluded from some super-cinephile Mile High club.
Having now got my wings, I can testify that Gambling, Gods and LSD, showing at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, is well worth the wait and its three-hour length, provided you like trippy, non-linear travelogues on the deep side. Think Wicker's World meets Koyaanisqatsi, that New Age classic mixed to a Philip Glass score, but with its own idiosyncratic agenda. As the title suggests, Mettler's film explores the ways and means - such as gambling, religion or drugs - that people choose to attain a higher plane of consciousness. Or, as he says, "It revolves around ideas of meaning, and how people do it, how I do it and of being itself - how to be with a film camera and how to be in your life."
That might sound like Heidegger Goes to the Movies, but the film itself is a very sensuous, accessible experience, a baggy beast withsequences that are pure magic. It documents a four-year journey taking in the darkest suburbs of Toronto, the deserts of Las Vegas, Switzerland and Southern India.
The non-judgemental camera takes in all kinds: an evangelical church full of Christians high on the Holy Ghost, drug addicts and Albert Hoffman (the inventor of LSD), missile silos, casino operators, sex machines, rattlesnakes, beggars, beautiful landscapes, a Bollywood movie being shot, and a casino being blown up. Many encounters and events were caught by chance. Yet the film's editing gives the whole a sense of shape, enhanced by a keening, thrumming soundtrack.
I first met Mettler at a festival before I saw his film.Mettler has a deep voice and a gentle, pastoral air, like a good psychiatrist. Indeed, people open up to him in the movie. One gambler unties a handker-chief to reveal his dead wife's cremated remains. A sex-machine inventor in Nevada gets tearful remembering killing people during wartime. A Swiss woman, a former drug addict, speaks of how heroin filled an "inner void".
Months after we first met, I get Mettler on the phone in Switzerland and ask how it all started. "The themes are so big they're probably woven into my whole life," he says. "But as a film idea it started in the Eighties as an idea about transcendence and was originally going to look at all the ways people try to transcend, find ecstasy, whatever. But that became more refined. I started to integrate ideas about how to be with a camera and put preconceptions aside and let the subject tell you how to make the film instead of planning and going out and executing it."
The filming, over four years, was a struggle itself, but the editing took another two years. A noted cinematographer, Mettler's previous directorial efforts include Picture of Light, about the Aurora Borealis, and Balifilm, another kaleidoscopic travel movie. Given this CV, it's no surprise that Gambling looks so beautiful.
Mettler knows how much the right fusion of sound and image can be transporting in all kinds of contexts. Scenes of clubbers feature in the movie, and since finishing it he's started VJing, mixing unused footage to provide a visual compliment to music. There's a natural progression from the preoccupations with heightened collective experiences. "I've always been interested in music and dance - and drugs," he laughs. "Although I'm not particularly a raver."
The film is destined to build a following among those who like to ingest chemicals and cinema simultaneously. But even for the sober there's something mind-altering, gropingly sublime imbedded in its cinematic DNA. Its phantasmagoric nature makes you work as a viewer, searching for the overall meaning in its narrative, a reflection of its own existential quest. Early in the film Mettler's voiceover explains that "I become more and more aware of how this film is making itself... I see a thought, but how do I show you what I can't see?" See it for yourself and find out.
'Gambling, Gods and LSD' is at the ICA, The Mall, London, SW1, today at 8pm and tomorrow at 2.45pm and 8pm (020-7930 3647)