Encounters at the End of the World: "Picture of Light"

04 December 2017

I could watch 16mm footage of trains in remote landscapes like this all day: the mood, and that light…

The best film I saw at Porto/Post/Doc last week was Picture of Light. Peter Mettler’s 1994 documentary is one of those ‘searching’ films whose subject and themes emerge from the very process of their singular pursuit. In the first scene, Mettler foregrounds his film crew’s kit (boom mics, battery packs, and so on): this is to be a film about the mechanics, practicalities and difficulties of making a film. The quest, to record moving images of the Northern Lights from Churchill, Manitoba—a weather-besieged outpost in the Canadian tundra—is a simple enough task but for the hostile conditions encountered: severe snow storms, and temperatures of -40℃. Snowed in, Mettler films his crew and collaborators trying to pass time. As if caught up in its own stagnant drift, the film meanders, and becomes many things: a Herzogian ethnography from one edge of the world, a Marker-esque contemplation on the interconnectedness of things, and even a small-scale riff on Coppola’s Apocalypse Now legend (‘There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane’. Picture of Light’s crew was six; the film cost $600,000.)

Mettler ruminates, in a voiceover that falls on the right side of post-Marker poetics (too many filmmakers overwrite such disembodied philosophising): ‘We live in a time where things do not seem to exist if they are not captured as an image.’ The Canadian positions his chosen practice, an art in the age of mechanical reproduction, in relation to more strictly scientific endeavours—video dispatches from NASA astronauts, footage of the Aurora Borealis as seen from above, medical explanations of frost bite. Among the crew here is the Swiss meteorologist Andreas Zeust, who also produced the film, and who in the opening scene explains—with an amusing, proudly bonkers deadpan eccentricity—just why the crew is hanging out in a giant freezer (one crew member has frost on his eyelashes).

The subject matter provides Mettler with a kind of natural armament for associative patterns. ‘Before science explained,’ he says, ‘the Northern Lights were interpreted as visions, prophecies, spirits. A trigger for the imagination…’ I loved the film’s formal tensions, between having to approach something as all-encompassing as the universe itself on the one hand, and the by-no-means comprehensive methodology on the other. The beautiful ungraspability of something as huge as the cosmos is juxtaposed against the harsh (and equally beautiful) materiality of Planet Earth. The plurality of the film—its differing vantage points, from local hunters to scientific experts, each one given their respectful due—helps to ground Mettler’s reach-for-the-stars narration.

I could watch 16mm footage of trains in remote landscapes like this all day: the mood (those cosmic drones on the soundtrack), and that light… While the locales allow for a natural sense of wonder to pervade the film, they also offer Mettler an index of pretty images to fall back on whenever the digressionary structure risks taking things too far. But as freewheeling spirits go, I think this film gets it just right. At one point, as if to suggest a cabin-fevered delirium—as if the very conventions of film grammar are disintegrating under the pressure to prove one’s existence—we cut from one talking head to another, but the sound of the first continues over the image of the second, so that we’re hearing one person talk about one thing while watching another talk about something else. It’s a bizarre little flourish, but it works.