Friday, September 21, 2012

Making Mas Man— End of a surreal journey

Peter Minshall works on the headpieces for his 1993 band Donkey Derby.

It happened on Ash Thursday the year he gave us his last mas. The 2006 Carnival was as good a hurrah as befits anyone like him. As cultivated and bombastic, strong-willed and emotive, combative and refreshing as perhaps any artist who shapes art only to distort it to make you realise you’re gaping at yourself in a mirror of horror. Even at your ownpristine, naked beauty. The Eden of self. For, you, too, are God.  And across time, we never got to figure out who HE was, whom he had become, though Peter Minshall himself says it all. “On Carnival Tuesday night, Tribe is coming up, and this is where I observe a fact of modern Carnival life that I had not even known to exist. It was like a juggernaut, a cavalcade of 40-foot trailer trucks, about 20 of them, huge, towering above me, and ten of them were bars for the all-inclusive consumption of alcohol; and ten more were the shower sprinklers to keep the delicate folk cool on a hot tropical day; and ten more were food, and if there were any more left over they were in between those for music. “And they were going by like if it was the desert war again and they had an enemy to conquer. These huge trucks, and in between these chasms created by the trucks were these little sprinklings of people with a few little beads and a few little feathers. “I thought, my God, I had no idea that this was where de ting reach. Where the form had so taken over that it has absolutely eradicated the substance.”

He relaxes a little and eases back onto the stool, for he’s in a crouch, his eyes penetrating mine and waiting for them to breathe again. The pause lingers, it seems, for as long as the annual Memorial Park, Anthony-Quinn-in-The-long-Wait period before your band is waved onto the Drag. “It was biblical, this march of thundering trucks, the technology and the mechanism. Huge. It was quite spectacular in its own way. I felt like a little fella in a pirogue, you know, and the waves and the wake ...” He cups his chin in the palm of his hand, eyes straying on an old costume leaning against a wall across by so. And then it came, the wave blowing us both back in the day.  Oui foute! “I didn’t know it was so.” That scene in the Callaloo mas camp is a telling dialogue of an old actor like Brando, who had come back from irrelevance to write his own epitaph at the end of Apocalypse Now even as he was spitting robber talk flecked with mimicry from the Bookman from Hell. No one will ever dismiss Brando’s brief role in a long, harrowing tale. And I will forever recall that epic summation and distillation of where Minshall had been and where the mas was heading. He didn’t know it was so.

Director of 'Mas Man' Dalton Narine
I didn’t know either that the cogs in the mas that turned the wheels had long been worn smooth when I arrived at offices, public and private, cap in hand, a vagrant filmmaker on the prowl for change. “A documentary about Minshall?” she said. “What if he doesn’t bring another band?” Well, he designed 26, and, no, it’s a film about Minshall. I’d learned that from  Pennelope Beckles. “They’ll take you seriously if you call it a film.” The minister made a phone call and redirected the team to T&T Film Company, the only foundation for moral support, as it turned out. It wasn’t a grand largesse, per se, but it spirited us out of a pinch. I’m reminded of the line by sculptor Anna Serrao, who made mas with galvanise, our own metal, as Minshall termed it. “Not so much for how it looks but how it sounds in the rainy season. The dropping of the rain on it is not so far from the din and the melody of a pan. Such sweet shelter.” Minshall could talk, yes. But Serrao didn’t see it like that. “This is hard mas. Hard. It’s like we have to find a rationale for our craziness.” Those were hard, hard days, too, for the team—Benedict Joseph behind the camera and Danielle Dieffenthaller hosting meetings at her home to pitch for interviewees and strategise. We never did meet the ordinary woman who walked around with a fount of knowledge about the mas. Nor did we locate the John John villager who had planted in her front yard a standard from her Calabash character to ward off evil forces. What a story, she! And the times were especially not galvanising for me, because I’d always been the point man, going brave into the jungle —wary of the enemy, the rest of the troops at safe distance to the back. Every office settled in the bush. As example, an officer chose my pitching opportunity to talk randomly about things in general. Money may have been my objective, but for sure not his object or thing that he could hand out without stretching the ole talk, ad infinitum. After four trips to the “bank”, I eventually caught on to the ritual. 

The spirit broken, you become a sycophant because you must make nice, in letters, in person, on the phone. In the bush, where you’re held captive. Unless you realise it and end up receding back to reality. So, it wasn’t difficult making mas man. But it was excruciatingly painful doing so with the bank’s money. And myriad other forms of financing so that you’re able to skip from an interview session on the east coast of America to the west, where Hollywood treated you like a man. A filmmaker. Don Mischer, an exceedingly gracious and famous producer who ran the Atlanta and Salt Lake City Olympic Games, excused himself from a meeting in the midst of planning an entertainment show for the Super Bowl, American football’s World Cup, to chat for an hour about Minshall and how Minsh virtually ran meetings about the opening ceremonies. “All Peter had to say was, ‘Imagine, if you will,’ and he held us in the palm of his hands.”
Then you look around when he takes a call and count off 14 Emmys decorating the office. The guy I hired as camera operator, himself a filmmaker, looked at it as another ornate set, but with the Hollywood sign gracing the hill, yet bleeding through a window as backdrop. 
I had come from a good vibe in Greenwich Village, New York, where we had coupled two major interviews in a restaurant setting. The scenario unspooled radically well between the theatre director and the university professor, the only odd take on that cold morning  arriving unscripted from a cop who was about to ticket the rental car. And it’s all on video, the mad scramble to unhinge the mike on the lapel of the winter coat so I could  remonstrate in vain with New York’s Finest, and Joseph actually recording the predicament—force-feeding an outtake, though there was no technical error involved. Never trust your senses about an interview, for it will go to any lengths to get its way. And it’ll cost you. Indeed, filmmaking is a pricey endeavour. Like waking up to find that someone had keyed your car in the dead of night, bleeding off the paint as if it were coursing your vital vein. Instead, it was your own soul that had been scarred in broad daylight. If it wasn’t the shoe leather sponsorship trip wearing you down and out, it was the pick-up line Minsh gave when I initially called about the film that kept you going. He’d shunted the conversation that Sunday morning by assigning the moment to the cosmos. He must have known I’d been a pannist for years.

“The universe patient, eh?” he said, alluding to pan’s labyrinthian evolution over 62 years up till that day. How it start off fighting for its wee life and fending off know-it-all authority and its family who tried so hard to care for it, changing its face and voice and garb—even its reason for being—each member claiming her or a little piece of her; all such upbringing leading to a social network of friends and other countrymen, this new world at long last embracing her chromed and steely tone as a credible instrument for social change; all of that history bollixed up in the hills and the yards, and just now shrinking inside an outer universe that so patient, so patient eh boy? Well, that’s how Mas Man was born. Time knocking on the door for story to tell. I mean to say, look how the fella come from so far and get so big...big, big, big in the pantheon of the arts, pan and Minshall both. The one he calls the concert music of the Caribbean  and the other he reverently refers to as Mas Man. One and the same, if you ask me.

 After all it was a steel band derivative in mas, fancy sailor, which took a decade to mature from suck-meh-nose, that he carried in his head long before England called him to study this other world of upper-crust art. The rock of his belief in the mas, he would remind the old world of his epiphany of the streets dancing around him in his youth; crab, camera, cash register, clock, elephant, Donald Duck, cobra, fruits, flowers—anything a Trini sailor man could conceive to tote atop his head that would eventually turn new mas. New mas, indeed. That’s what he returned home from his studies to make. From the Land of the Hummingbird. Paradise Lost, where we bounce up in 1976 in Stephen and Elsie Lee Heung’s mas camp in Woodbrook. 
How you believe you could transport Milton’s epic poem into breadfruit art? Eh? Into we ting. Well, by God, he did it. Maybe the best mas ever, transforming even itself. And so I was hooked as I watched stanza after stanza unfurl before the camera... Minshall was the man then—and now. His name will live for a hundred years a bandleader said in the film, which The Callaloo Company sanctioned after, let’s put it this way, just one interview question. Minshall: “How are you planning to do this film?” Me: No narration. 
The stew required nothing else. I had the ingredient. I would have walked out of his home if my modus operandi wasn’t taken seriously. Minshall has voice, panache, cojones and erudition. Yet, there’s a missing link. He still can’t fathom the truth that the best footage is recorded on 11,000 tapes that dwell in 500 boxes in an old rum bond in Laventille. They remained untouchable for five years during the making of Mas Man. But in the bush you learn to make do with what you have, and editor Eduardo Siu and I are proud to roll out a three-DVD home video of a film that has won nine awards on six continents. More than five hours of Minshall’s Carnival art and Olympic artistry as a result of our take-no-prisoners attitude toward independent filmmaking.
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