Celebrating the End of Time

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Fascinating associations abound in Peter Mettler’s documentary about how we perceive time.

Ever since it’s become aware of it, humanity has been trying to figure out how to understand the concept of time. But for what purpose? Consider these three complaints related to time: 1) There’s not enough of it; 2) It moves too slowly; 3) We’ve yet to figure out how to repeat it or fast-forward our lives through it. The common denominator to these complaints reveals an ever-present and unfortunate characteristic of humanity—the desire to control.

This thought and many others came to mind as I recently watched The End of Time by Canadian filmmaker Peter Mettler. In this visually-stunning and remarkably thought-provoking documentary, Mettler digs deep into the ancient question “what is time?” and makes some surprising observations and associations along the way.

Throughout the film, Mettler deftly demonstrates that answering that age-old question involves much more than proving Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity; it means asking hard questions about our collective existence and the purpose we ascribe to our individual lives. Above all, Mettler challenges the viewer in myriad ways to take a step back, slow down, and ask themselves what’s more important: that we control time or learn to ignore it?

Mettler illustrates that pointed question by profiling individuals and communities dealing with specific characteristics of time. There’s Jack Thompson, who, for 30 years, lived a timeless existence in the shadow of a Hawaiian volcano, fully aware that one day lava would consume his home. His decision to stay while every one of his neighbors left was borne out of a deep desire to disconnect from the mile-a-minute lifestyle he saw in the modern world. The irony wasn’t lost on him that the Earth’s snail-like process of making new islands would eventually push him back into the fast-paced civilization he had hoped to escape. 

From Hawaii, Mettler takes us to Detroit—a city gutted by the negative side-effects of progress. Mettler points out that the technological efficiencies pioneered by Henry Ford initially reaped prosperity, but also sowed the seeds for the city’s demise. Ford’s assembly line may have saved time, but it eventually cost human jobs. The upside, as Mettler shows, is the blank slate that Detroit now represents for people interested in building grassroots communities that emphasize relationships with the Earth and each other over pursuit of profit.

A noted photographer, Mettler’s eye for finding the beautiful in the seemingly mundane is on full-display throughout the film and contributes to the film’s reception as experimental cinema more than traditional documentary. The End of Time is patient, contemplative, and artistic in its presentation, which has apparently rubbed many Netflix users the wrong way. Considering the subject matter of the film and Mettler’s not-so-subtle suggestions that humanity can offset the negative effects of progress by taking the time to reconnect with the world around us, the reviews claiming the film is “too slow” or “boring” demonstrate there’s a desperate need for our civilization to figure out how to slow down before it’s too late. Not only do the reprioritizations that Mettler suggests in this film hold the ingredients to solving many of our current global crises, they also suggest how we as individuals might be able to conquer clocks and calendars to live a more meaningful life. This poignant observation is summed up beautifully by Mettler’s mother at the end of the film. Though she doesn’t realize it, Julia Mettler offers the most sublime answer to the film’s central question. Rather than offer up a complicated definition of what time is or isn’t, she simply suggests that one should do their best to make the most of it. After all, while it may be fascinating to ask what time is, perhaps we’ll be better off when we learn to live our life as if time—or at least our perception of it— doesn’t matter.     

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com

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