There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, The earth, and every common sight, To me did seem Apparelled in celestial light, The glory and the freshness of a dream.
The attempt to recapture some of this idyllic vision is a central theme of Peter Mettler’s epic-documentary Gambling, Gods and LSD. A filmmaker’s journey through several continents and cultures, it examines some of the ways people try to achieve bliss and give meaning to their lives.
It is also a complex film, which explores a multiplicity of other intertwined topics including happiness, death, addiction and alienation.
The viewer is taken everywhere from an ecstatic gathering of born-again Christians in Toronto, to an interview with an existential chemist in Switzerland, to a staff celebration of a hotel implosion in Las Vegas. Don’t be fooled by the title into thinking this film has anything to do with the exploitation of sixties counter-culture.
Mettler, a long time cinematographer, makes much use of the natural beauty of his settings in his film. Striking shots of deserts, rivers and mountains are linked with the feelings many of those interviewed have about the relationship between transcendence and oneness with the natural world.
Although the natural imagery is gorgeous, it is really the characters interviewed that make the film engaging, entertaining and enlightening. A variety of people speak of how they attach meaning to their lives including Indian movie stars, former drug addicts and the earnest creator of a scientific vibrator (this is the movie’s most hilarious episode).
The stories they tell are often moving and raise interesting questions about identity. An ex heroin-addict, for example, speaks of how he used to sleep in a donated clothing drop-box (the filmmaker actually climbs into this bin with him) and reflects on the eight months he spent in solitary confinement.
Mettler talked to dozens of people before he chose who would make the final cut. In fact, Gambling, Gods and LSD was edited from over one hundred hours of original footage. The only narrative device imposed by the director was keeping the film in chronological order, which he shot at various times between 1997 and 1999.
Although this lack of narrative structure is intentional, the film’s many themes and three hour length can occasionally feel like a bad acid trip, where time appears slowed-down, and the world seems a jumbled chaos. Average viewers, even the rare, serious and patient ones, can only watch pans of landscapes and rivers for so long before they get bored. One feels as though some of the nature shots could have been cut to give more prominence to those interviewed.
However on the whole, viewers are rewarded for their patient engagement. Gambling, Gods and LSD is a breathtaking documentary that may change your life.
The film’s relaxed pacing, gorgeous landscapes and exotic rituals will bring you to another world. It raises profound questions that delve into the realms of psychology and spirituality without being hokey or pretentious, a truly impressive feat. If you are interested in artistic, meditative cinema Gambling, Gods and LSD is worth the trip.
Playing at Cinema du Parc.