Directed by Peter Mettler. Canada. 2002.

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"Reality is far more mutable, capacious, and capricious than we generally allow ourselves to imagine” - Daniel Pinchbeck from "Breaking Open the Head" 

In a society that appears determined to keep us alienated from our true self, knowledge of reality achieved through personal experience or visionary states seems to be a fit subject only for media giggles or academic smugness. In his experimental three-hour documentary that took ten years to complete, Gambling, Gods and LSD, Canadian filmmaker Peter Mettler wants to change this. Part travelogue and part photographic essay, the film takes us on a "journey of discovery" to different parts of the globe observing the different ways in which people seek transcendence. During the course of the three hours, we are presented with a dazzling display of images and sounds of nature and humanity: alpine fog, boys playing cricket, running water, a crippled beggar looking at the camera, a moving train, a jet plane reaching skyward among others. Mettler interviews biochemists, heroin addicts, gamblers, born-again Christians, and 97-year old Albert Hoffman, the inventor of LSD, each seeking to express the meaning of their life but ideas are not fully explored. 

Beginning with an evangelical gathering of believers at the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship Church where worshippers writhe on the floor in beatific agony, the camera takes us to Las Vegas, Nevada, Arizona, Switzerland, and southern India. We see a hotel being demolished in Las Vegas as a young woman watches in a dreamlike state from her hotel room, a teenage girl strapped to a machine in an erotic pose as a sex-shop owner describes his Electro-erotic stimulator. Two Swiss heroin addicts talk about their highs and lows, a Hispanic card player shows us the cremated remains of his wife in a red scarf, we visit a dog race in Zurich Switzerland, and experience fire dancing on a beach in India. Described by the director as being about "transcendence, the denial of death, the illusion of safety and our relationship to nature", the camera moves quickly from one reality to the other. The images speak for themselves - some profound, some banal, others simply bizarre. "Ultimately", Mettler says, "the film is about the people who watch it." 

Mr. Mettler is a visionary director and his work is audacious and often mesmerizing, but his film left me wanting more. Though drugs are one of the unifying themes of the film and LSD appears in the title, there is no discussion of what LSD is about or of the psychedelic revolution of the 60s that shattered our assumptions about reality and, for better or worse, defined an entire decade. Mettler dwells on the virtues of addictive drugs like heroin but shows us nothing about shamanism, native rites of passage, Buddhist chanting, healing ceremonies, or paranormal phenomena involving the use of sacred plants and substances occurring in nature, phenomena that have led other mind explorers to reach profound personal insights. 

Gambling, Gods and LSD is a unique attempt to allow us to see transcendence in the kaleidoscope of human activity and I recommend that it be seen, yet much of it is simply sensational or striving for a "trippy" effect. There is definitely a movement taking place in the world that seeks to define reality outside of the rigid mechanistic structures spoon-fed to us since birth by academics and the media, but the film does not seem to be looking in the right places. Goethe has said, "We all walk in mysteries…under particular conditions the antennae of our souls are able to reach out beyond their physical limitations". Even in our modern age, the nature of consciousness remains elusive and perhaps now requires us to look through a different pair of glasses. 

Howard Schumann
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