Horizon at Sandy Point

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Angriest Man

The tombstone of the Angriest Man in Brooklyn, Henry Altmann, bears the dates 1951 - 2014. This film was released a couple months before the death of Robin Williams whose tombstone will also say 1951 - 2014. Looking at Williams hopping mad on the screen, even as he's supposed to be preparing to die, you know he's going to be around a long time. The 50 or so roles that he created for cinema, not to mention the television pieces, the stand up comedy will be viewed again and again. People will pick their favourites, and search out the films they haven't seen.

His face is the face of The World According to Garp (1982). Henry Irving's character was brought to life by Williams; and Garp will never be other than Williams' tragi-comic alter ego. There's always a little horror lurking behind the frivolity, look at Patch Adams. Perhaps horror is too strong, maybe it's reality lurking: growing old, falling out of love, dying.

In Angriest Man, Henry Altmann comes face to face with mortality. He's so angry that you are sure he will blow a gasket. And he does. The doctor, a replacement for his regular medic, is angry too. She (Mila Kunis) feels pushed to her limit, as a doctor, as a human being. She diagnoses the scan; and provoked by Altmann's insistence, pronounces that he has 90 minutes to live. And so for 90 minutes (running time of the movie), we see how Henry reconciles the disappointments and hurts of his life that made him angrier and angrier.

We have two more Robin Williams films to be released this year. Merry Friggin Christmas and the third   episode of Night in the Museum: Secret of the Tomb in which he plays Theodore Roosevelt. You could always go back to the classic Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society, What Dreams May Come, Mrs Doubtfire, Jack, The Final Cut, The Birdcage … What a legacy!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Another state of independence

University after high school seemed a good idea. It was a useful way of leaving home without being kicked out. It's funny that my parents never discussed what I wanted to do - maybe I don't remember. I dreamed through life with my head in books. When I was packing eggs, cleaning windows sweeping under beds washing dishes watching tv, I would be in another world. It's hard to recollect how the real world of hanging upside down in trees, discovering the land beyond the hatchery, leading a ragamuffin band of siblings and sometimes cousins, connected with the virtual worlds that inhabited my head.

Perhaps they came together in the Poppy Club, a gang of Saturday youngsters that trailed my will. Sometimes we were two clans led by my younger sister and me. Mostly we made up plays, dressed in cast-off clothing and made up our faces with stubs of lipstick and crayons. We performed an annual Christmas pageant - complete with shepherds, wise men, Mary and Joseph and baby in a manger. We gave ourselves other names - Ethel, Edith, Ruby, Lil Joe - and refused to respond to our actual names, thereby making ourselves unavailable to serve the grownups. We would be off in the wild west, huddled in a covered wagon - the bunk bed surrounded with sheets - outracing Apaches.

School was a daily getaway from the feudal system of the family farm. There were so many sanctuaries here: a library, a music room, science labs, a chapel. I was conditioned to the comfort provided by structure, order, discipline, the freedom of walls. I loved literature, language, math, and a special session called "speech" in which we pretended to be television interviewers and interviewees guided by a woman called Jennifer Mitchell (later Als). The only bane in the walled kingdom was PE. I hated the "knickers" because mine were "bloomers" way too wide and made the short flared skirt stick out like a cancan. I could have been fast but didn't see the sense in running. No one helped make the connection between parallel bars or the horse and the trees I climbed. I dreaded the regimen of exercises in the hot sun; and once fainted on the field and had to be carried bodily to Matron.

BAHS as I knew it
The combination of math, french and chemistry for A levels didn't phase the administrators at the end of the sixties but was a dilemma for me. Where would I fit in? The path of least resistance led back to the conventional math physics chemistry stream; which was still less popular than math chemistry zoology. My younger sister knew she would be an artist; and pursued it with passion and vigour all her life. Me, I was a sponge soaking up everything. In my head I didn't struggle with what I thought I should be: mathematician seemed good enough; it wasn't physicist or chemist or teacher or lawyer or farmer or wife or mother. My dedication was to something called Wall News - a weekly newspaper posted on bulletin boards; my favourite features were the "getting to know you" interviews with teachers who were after all our first heroes.

How does a child of working class parents get to want to go to university? I drifted into teaching - a natural apprenticeship - at my high school. Math and beginning science, classes shared with my best friend who was a brilliant teacher. I remember hopeful upturned faces and wondering what I could tell them to turn them on. Another four years later, I was trying to turn young minds on to Shakespeare and literature, but I don't think I was "born to teach."

But university? Barely considered. My principal at BAHS turned the light on. While the others in my class were busy heading out to UWI, both St Augustine and Jamaica, and even further afield, I was looking wistfully at Canada, still not knowing what I was going to dedicate a few years of study to. The USIS (US Information Service) had sent an application to a small girls university in Virginia. The Dean of Hollins had spent a year in Trinidad on a Fulbright scholarship. He was so impressed with our multi-culturalism that he invited a Trini girl to take up a full scholarship every year he remained dean. Six - was it seven? - of us in five successive years filled beds that may otherwise have remained empty; each of us for three or four years each. All we had to do was keep our grades up - in any field.

Stephanie Shurland, principal at BAHS

Prefects at BAHS in 1969
In the turbulent times of the war in Viet Nam, the civil rights movement and riots across the USA, Trinidadians - together with some Jamaicans, Curacaons, and a smattering of middle eastern, Chinese, Indians - coalesced an example of racial harmony in a tiny university on Virginia's Blue Ridge Parkway. And that's a completely other story.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Central home of the artist

The rolling hills of Chickland in the Central Range look towards the Northern Range, here shrouded in rain cloud
The pink house in Chickland has been standing for 175 years. It has grown more beautiful with careful renovations and regular maintenance by its most recent owners.  Built of "a single cedar tree" by a Chinese shopkeeper who did business on the Chickland Caparo main road, the original house on stilts was a classic of the style that British colonials were spawning everywhere in the tropics. The high ceiling beneath the gabled roof of "galvanize" (galvanised corrugated metal) created a well-ventilated living space.
The pink house in Chickland

Windows and doors open all around. We would do well to be inspired by this simplicity today: the open centre, windows on all sides, demerara, jalousie, fretwork. As the eyes are windows to the soul, so are windows the eyes of a house. Every window in this house opens to a view - picture windows all!

Demerara windows on the west

Every window frames a picture!

Two decades after it was built, the house and its estate Les Lilas (the lilacs were probably a reference to the petrea trees that were once plentiful in the area) were acquired by Frenchman Charles Melizan in the expansion of Santa Isabel, producing cocoa and coffee. A hundred years later, the house and a few acres including the pottery set up by Charles Melizan's grandson were acquired by Rory and Bunty O'Connor for their Ajoupa Pottery.

Show room, dining room, living: the public space downstairs

The door as window, framed by Bunty's art!

Art in the garden pond

As the business at Ajoupa flourished, so did the house. The ground floor was enclosed. The showroom doubled as dining and living room with a convenient kitchen and home office. Within 20 years, the factory was closed. "Who can make a pot to compete with the Chinese?" Bunty lamented the tide of globalization, and turned her attention to making art. Mosaics are installed in homes. Explorations in raku proceed with classes of willing students. Sculptural and pictorial ceramics emerge. This led to the construction of the new studio built on the same principles that evolved the pink house: an open space, steeply gabled galvanize roof, views all around, a work in progress.


Upstairs back porch

Private space: gallery of her own and  friends' art

The pink house in Chickland sits amid graceful gardens where towering natives and fruits define the spaces for clumps of heliconia, bursts of colour everywhere. It is a heritage house for the rolling hills of the Central range, for the age already past, where life in the tropics was lived largely outdoors with wind and rain and big trees. The pink house and Ajoupa Gardens are both backdrop and creation of the artist in her native land, a lovely legacy for all Trinidadians.

Sculpture in the sun

Earth goddess

Earth pot

Mother Earth

The new studio is not the first building designed and built by Rory O'Connor

Trees are silent loyal companions in the garden of the pink house

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Love after life

Transcend: to go beyond, to another plane of existence or experience, usually beyond the physical. In meditation, in dreams, we can achieve transcendence. Not quite the same as transfiguration, which usually connotes a more beautiful or spiritual state, such as understood by the Transfiguration of Christ. Let me see if I can express the distinction: transfiguration is permanent; transcendence may be temporary and seems to be a more active state. To transcend, you have to get there, and you have to act to stay there. There's will and choice in the matter.

And so we come to Will Caster (Johnny Depp) brilliant scientist in a quest for the secrets of the universe. He is married to Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) another scientist whose desire is to save the world. They live and work among colleagues as dedicated, noble even, as they: best friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) and mentor Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman). Outside, in the real world, there are radical groups agitating to detach from technology, from the omnipresence of the internet.

The film begins in a world where nothing technological works, where a laptop is used as a doorstop. So we perceive the collapse. And then, we enter the story five years before.

There are deep philosophical and ethical questions that attend each sequence in the story. Our human desires, anguish at death, desire for wellbeing - mortality - and thwarted emotions are all revealed. How far to develop artificial intelligence and for what purpose. How do we protect ourselves, our humanness. Is it possible to save the world with knowledge and power. If not, what will save us.

The story seems to be highly technical, in the jargon of enlightened science. Perhaps if the average person understood the science it might make the story so much more meaningful. But it's not necessary to know the language. Is this Frankenstein, creation of a modern day monster? Is this Brave New World, with Big Brother ever watchful. Is this Utopia with a single consciousness.  Through twists and turns, the core of the story reveals itself.

The knowledge and intelligence of the dying Dr Caster are uploaded to a super computer by his wife and best friend, to keep him, to hold on to his spirit, his essential goodness, just so much longer. Released in pure energy on the internet, Will's intelligence grows, learning and assimilating knowledge in leaps and bounds. Together, Will's mind and Evelyn's will, they create a model community. Brightwood in the Arizona desert is transformed from tumbleweed rundown town. It soon attracts the aged and infirm with procedures that heal and enhance. But the opposing forces are gathering.

Even Evelyn begins to doubt. Will's growing power is set to invade the world. His understanding is everywhere A computer virus is developed which Evelyn must deliver. What happens next should be seen in the film. In the end, it is love that redeems. Strip away the jargon, and Transcendence is a love story: not just between two persons, but of what it might take to love the world. It is a state that is spiritual, infinite, and not - yet - of this world.

The movie Transcendence was directed by Wally Pfister, written by Jack Paglen, and produced by Christopher Nolan. Paglen's story remained on Hollywood's Black List for some time - the list of popular but still unproduced screenplays. It was panned by many critics; received at best lukewarm reviews. It is likely that Transcendence is one of those films that gathers a following as understanding of science - and the internet - develops. It is a film that looks at the interactions of mind, body and spirit, and the overriding principle, love.