art in all its forms

art in all its forms


FILM REVIEW: Play the Devil

Gareth Jenkins and Petrice Jones

WHAT IS most taboo about Play the Devil is not its examination of gay life in Trinidad and Tobago. Rather, the work unsettles by throwing up questions about the power dynamics that exist when two persons of vastly different ages are in a relationship.

Of course in repressed, spiritual Trinidad and Tobago we talk about neither. We also ignore the grim implications of the vast inequalities of wealth nurtured and perpetuated by our rigidly-structured society.

The film follows Gregory (Petrice Jones), a disciplined, subdued and struggling 18-year old student who meets James (Gareth Jenkins), an older, wealthy businessman. James makes a move on Gregory who, in turn, encourages and accepts the older man’s advances. In one important scene, the younger man actively explores his sexuality with James.

The trope of doomed love between two persons of widely differing ages is a classic one in art. Consider Nabokov’s Lolita, Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Eliot’s Middlemarch. In all of these male cougar stories, the love under examination is heterosexual. Here, the filmmakers flip the switch.

Other sources abound. Comparison with the 2014 musical theatre production Jab Molassie – which also starred Nickolai Salcedo (who appears in this film and is even more incredible on screen than he is on stage)—is inevitable. Like that tale, the story is set high above the capital in the hills, and a central character is seduced by a devil. But whereas the temptation in Jab Molassie was highly symbolic, in Maria Govan’s film the power of the erotic is not sublimated within the story. It is the movie’s central conflict.

Gregory’s inability to come to terms with his sexuality and James dogged campaign to take up residence in Gregory’s life breed disaster. While we must be weary of the trope of violence being used against gay characters in art, the resolution of the plot is, in this instance, not contrived and is in line with the demands of tragedy. The resolution is not gratuitous and also channels the grim reality of our violent society.

In the opening scenes, actor Gareth Jenkins leaves enough room for us to have different interpretations of James’s motives. Does he want just a hot date? Or is he looking for something more? From the perspective of Gregory – and also evidently some audience members at MovieTowne tonight – James might come across as predatory.

But the projection of negative motives on others is a hallmark of a life of isolation and in the closet. What Gregory actually fears is himself.

To some extent, James, for all his audacious provocations, is the true victim because his actions may well be motivated by a genuine yearning for love. Though clothed with greater wealth and power, James is as trapped as Gregory in a world where every aspect of his life has been brought under manners: his career, his family life, his attempt to act out his core being.

Therefore the roles of victim and villain are as interchangeable as the movie’s Carnival costumes. Gregory’s anguish at the film’s haunting climax is not just a reflection of the fact that all doors have closed on him, it is also the Edvard Munch Scream of all minorities relegated to life at the margins.

The subtle way the film handles questions of class, education and social power is among its strengths. Visually, this Abigail Hadeed-produced film is also sophisticated but not ostentatious. There is a memorable shot from cinematographer James Wall of Gregory literally shutting a closet, as well as one where he is split in the face of a mirror.

Govan’s script does a very good job of turning the screw, pitting Gregory against the forces of family, of religion, of gender norms for males in a macho society, of criminal violence, of peer pressure, of a scholarship-obsessed education system and of wealth disparities caused by a society concerned with money above all else.

Here, at last, is a film of great integrity for the age in which we Trinibagonians live.

The Strange Years of My Life

THE TITLE asks us to think of change. To look back, to reflect. To put into context past moments, past times.

This exercise of self-reflection is also one of estrangement. It places one outside of the parameters of what is being examined. It subjects a life to objective scrutiny, to reportage, a reporter's objective gaze.

But the reporter’s selection of facts is an inherently subjective exercise. And what is really strange? To whom? To which version of the self?

Is strange necessarily pejorative? The unusual, surprising, alien can be pleasurable. What has happened to change things, to render these years different or differently perceived?

And whose life? The poet's? Or a persona of the poet? Is there is difference?

Thus, the title of Nicholas Laughlin's book, The Strange Years of My Life, like the best titles, is already a poem. It suggests autobiography, but flags the conflict between truth and perception. This is an epistemological conundrum. When does the mirage end?

When we encounter books of poetry we seldom have the author at our disposal. The poet's processes are often not documented and are largely unknowable to the reader. When a poet speaks about the work, it is easy to dismiss this as the poet's own reading of what she has done; as just another reading among many possibilities. But it is still a worthy exercise to look at what Laughlin himself has said of his own work, decades in the making.

"The poems belong to a hemisphere of the imagination that encompasses the narratives of nineteenth-century travelers and twentieth-century anthropologists, spy movies, astronomical lore, the writings of Saint-John Perse and Henri Michaux, and the music of Erik Satie," the poet says. "They balance on the edge between concealment and revelation, between bemused fascination and tentative comprehension. Every sentence is a kind of translation, and language is a series of riddles with no solutions, subtly humorous at one turn, sinister at another, heartbroken at the next."

The Strange Years of My Life: manuscript notebook, successive typescript versions, proofs, book (Photo by/from Nicholas Laughlin's Flickr.)

The troupe of “friends” and “strangers” whom the reader encounters in these pages, he says, are sometimes alter egos, sometimes aliases, sometimes adversaries. They inhabit a milieu of mistaken identity and deliberate disguise, where “there are too many wrong countries” and “already no one remembers you at home.”

These statements are apt. However, because poetry moves us by holding up mirrors, I also find reflections of Trinidad and Tobago life in this work. The brief poem 'Ars Poetica' is billed as a treatise on art, but its reference to guns inevitably invokes ideas of crime and punishment in this bloody society. It further makes us question the place of art in this at times fetid state. Yet, though some have dismissed art as a thing of ornamentation, they forget its power, how many people exist today simply because of that one poem, that one movie, that one song that got them through a difficult time. If Laughlin's poem says anything, its conjunction between poetry and violence reflects how words can do things in today's world.

Last week, Trinidadian poet Vahni Capildeo was awarded the Forward Prize for her awesome book Measures of Expatriation. Her work has astonished and her seven published works comprise an achievement in their own right. It's a good time to reflect on the place of the poet in the Caribbean region as a whole. Both Capildeo and Laughlin’s poems are implicitly political. They liberate us from tendencies that would seek to box Caribbean writing into a narrow corner.

On another note, this shall be my final column. I'd like to thank readers for, well, reading. Maybe you agreed. Maybe you disagreed. Maybe you were moved. As I move on after ten brief years of journalism, I can’t help but look back and embrace the title of Laughlin’s book. Often we have dreams and don’t pursue them. But what if we give ourselves permission to do so? I’ve one word for all the years of doubts. Enough.

From Sunday Newsday, Sept 24, 2016
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From the archive

Anu Lakhan on The Strange Years of My Life 
at Annie Paul's Active Voice blog here


Alice Yard: X

Christopher Cozier, Nicholas Laughlin and Sean Leonard

A LOT can happen in ten years. Ask Christopher Cozier, Nicholas Laughlin and Sean Leonard. Ask the artists, the dancers, the mas men, the musicians, the poets, the writers, the academics, the curators, the publishers, the bloggers, the film-makers, the graphic designers, the projectionists, the lecturers, the audio technicians, the carpenters, the workmen, the civil society activists, the craftsmen, the curious strangers. 

This September, Alice Yard marks ten years and this evening it opened a year-long series of events by hosting a new installation by Blue Curry.

Blue Curry's Untitled (Alice Yard, assorted combs) 

"I am always a bit cautious when I encounter the work of Curry," says Cozier. "His work confounds and confronts, but with precise and strategic composure....I would not trust these objects - just so - no matter how visually appealing."

Indeed, what objects can we trust? Curry's work transforms banal things, isolates them from their functions, opens the mind to appreciation of their aesthetic qualities, and then puts them back together again into a new sculpture - a kind of dance without movement. In the process, he repurposes the viewer. One man's trash is another man's treasure. And one man is also another. These are found poems. 

Cozier tonight traced the origins of Alice Yard to a conversation during Galvanise.

"We thought it would be interesting to start that conversation again," he said. In coming weeks, several events are planned, including a collaboration between Cozier and Blue Curry that seeks to shift encounters with art into public spaces, dissolve the boundary between makers and viewers and reject the notion of art as commodity.

Kriston Chen's toofprints
On a personal note, I've been around Alice Yard for years and participated in two iterations of Douen Islands there. The space has never stopped being exciting. It's never stopped. The only thing that might have changed is the fact that these days, some have more greys.

'We began ten years ago with questions and possibilities. Our evolution has been organic and open-ended. As we consider our actions and ideas of the past decade, our instinct is less to celebrate and more to affirm our spirit of investigation and exchange, our ethos of generosity and independence.' 

Conceptual sketch of Alice Yard by Sean Leonard