Documentary film is not a genre exempt from considerations of style, particularly if style is associated with the idea of auteur cinema as so many of the selections in this gallery suggest. Our very own Peter Mettler is as much an auteur as any filmmaker I can think of, a fact made abundantly clear in this clip from PICTURE OF LIGHT.
Mettler begins with shots that survey the stillness of emerging night in the small northern town of Churchill, Manitoba. The filmmakers have come in search of the ecstatic bursts of Aurora Borealis occasionally unleashed in the skies overhead, and the entire film is premised upon the long waits and technical difficulties inherent in their quest to capture the lights on film. He speaks in a personal tone on the voiceover while describing things at once banal and fantastic. As we listen, we slowly become witness to fleeting celestial formations rendered in time-lapse, a cinematic device that has become a signature mark of self-reflexivity while maintaining its ability to draw us into the film. Throughout the scene we also hear Jim O?Rourke?s ambient score providing a consistent tonal thread which transcends any perceived distinctions between the film?s constituent elements. Mettler ends the scene by saying: "we tell ourselves that seeing it on TV just isn't the same as being there," as though this were an idea that humans came up with to keep the boundary between reality and representation perfectly clear. But the boundary is not clear, and it never has been. The film does not suggest any incompatibility between a desire to keep the audience constantly aware of its own making while inducing the wonder that we might experience if we were in the filmmaker's position. The filming process is explained to us every step of the way, and there is no illusionist premise by which the filmmakers would want us to lose sight of the edges of the frame. So we are not confronted with the shock of disillusionment found high atop Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain. Our awareness of the filmmaking process is the process by which we become mesmerized.
The genius of Mettler's style is that it allows us simultaneous access to the wonders of its subject and the means through which this subject is turned into the film itself. Mettler's style shows us that reflexivity does not have to jolt the audience out of rapture. Science does not have to negate magic. They are each part of the other, as inseparable as the elements of any film which can be properly said to exhibit style.
[ Hi folks. I'm sorry my clip is so long. If you're going to view it in High Quality, may I simply recommend that you pause the clip at the beginning and let it download pretty much to the end before resuming play, lest the tone of the film be rendered ineffectual by repeated stalls and glitches. Enjoy. R.J.]
[ By Randolph Jordan • November 17, 2004 ]