Saturday, February 21, 2009

Picture of Light

Peter Mettler documents his experience of going to Churchill, Manitoba, to film the northern lights, and the thinness of this premise leaves the director struggling to lend the images some philosophical weight. Still, I admire Mettler, who has distinguished himself as a reliably excellent cinematographer (notably in the recent documentary Manufactured Landscapes) and a questing documentary director in his own right (such as in his opus, Gambling, Gods, and LSD), but he often fumbles when trying to explain the significance of his undeniably gorgeous imagery. He offers some fine footage of this snow-shrouded northern town, and he certainly stumbles onto some memorable moments, such as a bored local shooting a hole in the wall of a hotel room in order to watch a snowdrift form inside. But as an essay film, this pales in comparison to the work of a real master of the form like Chris Marker. Mettler’s narration feels like meditation in search of enlightenment, his ideas spinning out when confronted by this icy, empty landscape. He struggles to connect the northern lights with the cinematic process itself, but sadly can’t pull the metaphor into focus, leaving us with some beautiful footage of the northern lights and little more. However, the images are still strong enough to make the film worthwhile, and they will likely spur the audience to thoughts of equal or greater profundity than Mettler’s own.

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