Film Reviews – January/February 2010

The new films that are reflecting the region right now

Peter Samuel on stage as The Midnight Robber, alter ego to the traditional Carnival street character. Photograph courtesy Callaloo company

Master of the mas

Jonathan Ali

Will Peter Minshall produce another Carnival band? Since his last outing some four years ago, Trinidad and Tobago’s leading living masman has shown no signs of rejoining the decreasingly creative fray. As he nears his seventieth birthday, the speculation that we may have seen the last of Minshall increases, though many no doubt still hold out hope that he will return, if only for a las’ lap.

This makes Mas Man, a documentary by longtime Minshall chronicler Dalton Narine, a mixed bag, for a number of reasons. Spanning Minshall’s 30-plus years in Carnival, this film, though certainly no elegy, has the feel of a career-ending summation. As a record of Minshall’s work in what is a largely ephemeral medium, however, it is undoubtedly welcome. Yet ultimately, while there can be no more worthy a candidate to have a film made about his work than Peter Minshall, Mas Man falls well short of being the film that he deserves.

One of Mas Man’s main problems is surfeit. There’s simply too much of it. It isn’t that the film’s running time – a little under two hours – is too long per se. Narine, however, determined to give us the whole story of Minshall’s mas, presents nearly all of his 20-plus bands one after the other, making it feel too long.

At the same time, the archival footage is over-used. Taken from some of Minshall’s greatest bands – including Paradise Lost, Danse Macabre, Tantana and the great River trilogy – its judicious deployment could have spoken eloquently about Minshall’s genius. Instead, Narine adopts a more-is-more strategy with the footage, the net result being not unlike the effect of over-indulging at a gourmet dinner.

Added to this are a dizzying number of interviews with artists, critics, scholars, designers, journalists, musicians, as well as the odd librarian and attorney, and of course Minshall himself. Not only are there too many talking heads, but, for all that is said about Minshall’s greatness, there is precious little about his actual creative process. (Two exceptions are the interviews with Don Mischer, the producer of the opening ceremonies for the three Olympic Games with which Minshall was involved, and Alwin Chow Lin On, a veteran costume designer who goes into fascinating detail about the collaborative design and construction of Man Crab, perhaps the single most famous costume Minshall ever conceived.)

There is some attempt to inject drama into the film, with the addition of a thread showing the putting together of Minshall’s last-minute 2006 presentation, The Sacred Heart. Yet it is woven into the main narrative at points too far apart to keep the tension up, or make one truly care what happens to the band. Which makes the insertion of intertitles of the “Meanwhile, back at the mas camp…” variety sadly ham-fisted.

Perhaps it is unfair, even impossible, to expect a film whose subject is a great artist to approach the status of great art itself. Mas Man is never unwatchable. Still, that’s hardly a recommendation for a film, no matter the subject.

Mas Man: Peter Minshall, Trinidad Carnival Artist
Directed by Dalton Narine
107 minutes