I am thrilled that Rebel Satori Press’ new book FEVER SPORES: THE QUEER RECLAMATION OF WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS edited by Brian Alessandro and Tom Cardamone has become a best-seller and includes my own essay on Burroughs and reflections on his impact on me as an artist, a writer, Black cis-straight man – who, as an outsider myself, identifies with the radicalism of Queer outlaws like him.
Ever controversial, the book seeks to re-contextualize the man, his guns, his history, his homosexuality, his relationship to women, transgressive ideas and writings – within the 21st century mainstream LBGTQ community and their new Queer outliers. Featuring interviews with luminaries such as David Cronenberg to Blondie to Samuel Delaney and urgent essays from writers such as Laura Schleifer, Jason Napoli Brooks, Michael Carrol, and Charlie Vazquez, FEVER SPORES will not disappoint and it opens new doors into new perceptions on Burroughs’ legacy and profound influence.
Though the film was made in 2001 and scrutinizes the racial profiling and police brutality in New York City under Giuliani’s draconian reign, “As an Act of Protest” has never been more urgent than now. I approach this review—a defense born of moral outrage, really—not as a film critic, but as a fellow filmmaker and novelist. Often, it takes an artist to recognize an artist, talent to identify talent.
To contextualize, the film makes almost all contemporary activism and progressive finger-wagging histrionics feel like a disingenuous kindergarten special, a halfhearted performance staged by people who stand for nothing, driven by questionable motives.
The story centers on Abner, imbued with a glorious righteous indignation by writer-director Dennis Leroy Kangalee, who runs a Black theater group, and his actor Cairo Medina, Che Ayende in a turn that manages both a visceral nerviness and a cerebral intensity. Though Abner floats throughout the film like a haunted, haunting spirit, the spiritual journey—and crisis—is Cairo’s. He must cope with the unjust, criminal murder of a loved one at the hands of the NYPD as he reconciles his passion for expression through art or, failing that, a descent into violent vengeance. Ayende’s work here is unnerving, spellbinding, and ultimately heartbreaking. He is a force of brooding expression, tension, and apoplectic eruptions. He is compelling when silent and striking when in a verbose fury.
The acting is so raw, immediate, and naturalistic it seems more than improvised—it feels as though we’re watching real intimate connections being worked out. And yet, there is a fascinating formalism at play here. Rarely do we find actors who can balance with such adeptness the natural with the formal. The cinema of Cassavetes comes to mind. The theater of Baraka and Genet do, too. Kangalee clearly knows his film and theater history and understands where he fits in the ever-shifting canon. His marriage of forms and sensibilities is thoughtful; he assiduously toils toward excavating a new understanding of human behavior.
We have seen countless movies that celebrate straight white men at breaking points with society. Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Edward Norton in Fight Club. Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Rarely are black men granted the same luxury of being enraged with the world and acting on their anger. And if we’re being honest, it is black men—especially black men in America—who have the greatest right to be in a, as Baldwin put it, “state of rage, almost all the time.”
The ruminations on the nature of theater, and especially the need for a Black theater, run deep and into enlightening spaces. Theatre of the Absurd is thought of when considering the film on a meta level—the way Black people are mistreated in America is in and of itself absurd. Cruel and unfair to an absurd degree. Kangalee knows this and his emphasis on theater suits such thematic meditations.
Kangalee, the writer, is relentless in his examinations and excoriations. He demands you pay attention and endure the rhythmic chaos and existential horrors he dissects, those dehumanizing atrocities experienced daily by black men and women. Kangalee, the director, doesn’t let up, either. He insists you confront the gruesome truth and either flee or find deep mettle to withstand the revelation of your complicity. Kangalee, the actor, serves as an effective provocateur, a missile in human trappings sent deep into the heart of the matter. Unlike too many current filmmakers who claim to make “message movies” or “take stands” against injustice and the establishment, Kangalee actually does. And he does so poetically, unapologetically, and with an authenticity that shames.
Speller Street Films has done an admirable job remastering the cult film that has screened at universities across the United States and in Europe, however, it is unconscionable that As an Act of Protest has struggled for nearly two decades to land distribution. I can only blame the American (mainly white) critical establishment for not championing it, instead doing the bidding of the film industry—yes, both the “independent” film scene and Hollywood. The fear, the lack of imagination and depth, and the outright racism that has kept the film from garnering a wider audience is unforgivable. The hypocrisy of the independent film scene is apparent. They speciously declare their allegiance to emerging artists, taking “risks” with “edgy” fare, seeing more deeply than the big wig studio executives, eschewing commercial formula, and promoting marginalized voices. This is all nonsense, though. They’re just better at hiding their ugly, venal faces, faithful only to maintaining the status quo, and the rejection, indifference, and bitterness that As an Act of Protest has met with is evidence of this.
These same critics celebrate Ava Duvernay, Barry Jenkins, Spike Lee, all gifted and worthy in their own right, but also too-polite “fighters” for the cause, falling into line, protesting within acceptable lines; they stick to studio parameters, abide by white executive decree, and follow the structural playbook of formulaic moviemaking. They are using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, which leaves nothing dismantled, in the end. The structures remain. Kangalee has no use for the master’s tools and in his gritty, obliquely stylized aesthetic uses his own tools. And his dismantling is actual, not theoretical. He has no use for levity to break tension. He doesn’t care if you’re bothered by the cacophony of actors screaming into each other’s faces for two hours. He has no use for your precious sensitivities. Why should he? He’s not trying to become anyone’s friend. He is seeking to make enduring, personal art. And he has.
In a certain, eerie sense, the detractors of As an Act of Protest mirror the racist cops, corrupt mayor, and gentrified encroachers in the film itself. They too possess a colonized entitlement, a sense that they have the license to control, own, and kill.
Having followed the underground movements of As an Act of Protest, I possess empirical knowledge of the politics surrounding the film. And of the machinations intent on derailing it. I have witnessed too many cowardly, meek “critics” and academics lazily assail the film as if it posed a threat to their existence. The Guardian’s apathetic pseudo-review and TrustMovies’ ill-informed, vindictive rant, to name but a few. The same people who claim to want revolution and fancy themselves progressives, or even radicals, for that matter, reveal themselves to be anything but—they’re comfortable bourgeoise daunted by the prospect of being discomfited. They prefer a softer, templated blend of activism, something that will go down smoothly with their lattes and Wes Anderson confectionaries. To them, activism is little more than a fashionable accessory, a cute button or hip catch phrase. As an Act of Protest is a litmus test, one to weed out the truly rebellious and throttle the frauds into retreat. It’s exhilarating to watch the assault.
Brian Alessandro currently writes literary criticism for Newsday and is a contributor at Interview Magazine. Most recently, he has adapted Edmund White’s 1982-classic A Boy’s Own Story into a graphic novel for Top Shelf Productions, which won the National Book Award in 2016 for March. His short fiction and essays have been published in Roxanne Gay’s literary journal, PANK, as well as in Crashing Cathedrals, an anthology of essays about the work of Edmund White. In 2011, Alessandro wrote and directed the feature film, Afghan Hound, which has streamed on Amazon and Netflix. In 2016, he founded The New Engagement, a literary journal that has released two print issues and eighteen online issues. His debut novel, The Unmentionable Mann, was published in 2015 and was well received by Huffington Post, The Leaf, Examiner, and excerpted in Bloom. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice and the Independent Book Publisher Association Best New Voice Award. He holds an MA in clinical psychology from Columbia University and has taught the subject at the high school and college levels for over ten years. He currently works in the mental health field.
A link to my latest essay, “The End of the Imagination” — an updated, refurbished, and almost completely re-written exploration I had begun to explore in 2016. This is an essay I am not only proud of… but, sadly, one that seems to crystallize how I feel now and how I have felt for a long time. Thank you to Brian Alessandro and Lupe Rodarte for once again having the courage to publish work that is challenging, personal, and radical.
“The critic discusses the medicine, the artist administers it. It is neither the job of the creative artist nor the creative critic to make you feel good. It is not our job to provide hope, but truth. The artist gives you truth at all costs. The critic – merely interprets and records what is before him and tries to illuminate certain things we prefer to keep in an artist’s shadow. Or his closet.
Once you have usurped true creativity with an eye towards consumerism and advertising culture you have turned your back from the North Star and have settled on the ethos of Madison Avenue. When banks become proselytizers of culture instead of the individual artist you are in a wasteland.
And wastelands are living death brought to realization by inability to imagine.”
Speller St. Films recently asked Vagabond to do some artwork for Brian Alessandro’s demo short A Saintly Madness, the NY author and filmmaker’s latest cinematic project as he begins to make plans on the feature film itself. I have the pleasure of working and developing this project with Brian Alessandro and A Saintly Madness marked my official return to acting in nearly two decades. (Alessandro was the director of the controversial Afghan Hound.)
A Saintly Madness is a true communal, Socialist project itself & is the result of the latest example in a humble group effort. A reminder: As we cross-pollinate our talents and all we contain inside we will slowly leave something behind on the cave wall besides our bodies and our dust. It all starts here. These artistic collaborations are not important as they are necessary – and vital.
Vagabond’s Barbara Kruger inspired 1980’s NYC artwork for Brian Alessandro’s Urbane & Checkhovian ‘romantic comedy for rebels’
Vagabond, one of the last true DIY punk rock artists and a genuine Puerto-Rican-Protest Artist is one NYC’s unheralded master guerrilla filmmakers and a wonderful visual artist. Read more about the artwork here:
Written & Directed by Brian Alessandro
“Afghan Hound” (2010)
A New Director has made a powerful motion picture, which is now available to audiences on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.
Brian Alessandro’s 2010 Afghan Hound opens with a shot of garbage. An indication of the mess that slowly forms when a white American war veteran and an Afghani carpet weaver’s lives intersect. Although understandably perceived as a film about a PTSD and a Vet’s struggle to come to grips with the horror he inflicted in Afghanistan at the start of America’s invasion shortly after September 11, 2001 — the film is less a portrait of PTSD and more an illustration of the warped relationship America and historic white racism have with the Oppressed and colonized. It is set in the here and now, within the fray of the 21st century circus and the themes of white guilt, war crimes (an oxymoron if there ever was one), revenge, and punishment could be applied to just about any time period in modern man’s consciousness. Chris Leeds (Adam M. Griffith in an impressive performance) is a veteran trying to resolve and accept the horror he inflicted and experienced as a soldier in Afghanistan. He is reflective, introverted, and fragile when we meet him and yet at least he seems to be able to support himself – he’s a carpenter. And while he may not be Jewish, he is a Catholic and the suffering he must endure is rite of passage ritual into a state of grace. He is 33, like Christ was when he was crucified. Although it is not a primary aspect of the film, it is wholly un-subtle. Is Alessandro implying that Americans (i.e. “white people”) must suffer to the depths in order somehow be reborn, be cleansed, be…treated for their institutional philosophy of militancy and imperialism? Whether at home or abroad, white America has its nose in everything and dictates to everyone under the sun. Except to itself.
Enter: Zemar – spookily interpreted by Lavrenti Lopes. Zemar is the Afghanistan-American (he grew up in Flushing) who initially befriends Chris (they swap trades, Zemar teaches Chris about rug weaving, who in turn gets lessons in carpentry). Their exchange of energies and ideas is affirmative and creative as they both build things…and yet, as Zemar reminds us: “Everything begins with philosophy.” Which, of course, means that there is an inherent idea behind any organized act or decision. And how we render those actions is based on ones philosophy. It is quite clear that the director wanted it to be known that America’s treatment of “the other” and its own soldiers – is quite a conscious act.
I wrote earlier that Afghan Hound is not really about PTSD in my opinion – as that skirts the issue. It is about the recognition of guilt and admission of sin. And how a white man willingly accepts his punishment – even if only it allows him to feel something stable and “real.” This is no coincidence or something to be taken lightly. The white man – cut off from his own center, his own “soul” as it were must always go to the “natives” to feel something. He must always be led, taught, entertained, or forgiven by a person of color in order to be free of his burden, his shame. He has been going to the black man for his music for centuries now – because it enables him to feel. But what he can’t seem to do is actually forgive himself. People of color throughout the world do nothing but forgive. It’s not that the colonized don’t know who they are — it is perhaps that the colonizer doesn’t know or can’t admit who he is. And the Chris Leeds of the world wouldn’t know where or how to begin to forgive…themselves. Their world is too unstable.
In one of the film’s most genuinely moving scenes, Chris announces to his friends and family — after imploring them for their American nationalism in which he excoriates everything from the A Bomb to Britney Spears – “at least the sunset is trustworthy.” He knows it’s the only thing man can rely on, the one constant that may never change and it is an emotional sunset or sunrise that he needs, he needs something to lean against that he can rely on. Zemar becomes his sunset.
It is when Zemar begins pursuing revenge on Chris that the film takes a surrealistically absurd turn. Alessandro powerfully crafts elements of Sam Fuller and Pasolini into what emerges as a kind of delicate ‘Theater of Torture’ – all executed and inflicted by Zemar who shows himself to be quite the guerilla sadist. And this is the power of Alessandro’s directing – he expresses the terrifying fact that even the oppressed’s ability to enact a reasonable or rational act of revenge – has been corrupted!
Maya Angelou once wrote that she did not believe that blacks would treat whites the same if they were in positions of power and if their roles in western society had been reversed. She wrote this in reference to Jean Genet’s play “The Blacks” (which she appeared in originally) and while she may or may not be right, in the case of Afghan Hound – revenge is something Chris wants Zemar to have and, once again like a good sacrificial lamb – he offers himself and exposes himself to Zemar’s bizarre, yet benign, S&M fantasies (the scene where Zemar rubs his hands over Chris’ combat uniform as if to indicate the homo-eroticism of Fascist military fatigues is excellent). Zemar wants this white imperialist to suffer, to be punished, to be abused…and yet for all the debasing he does – it is Zemar who comes off appearing more warped than Chris, thereby endowing Chris with more sensitivity, almost in a strange way letting him (the white audience) off the hook, since the empathy is given more to him than to Zemar. If there is a criticism I have of Afghan Hound it is that.
Lopes bothered me half way into the film, he was too cocky and his cat like prancing was off-putting at first. I also was uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons. As an African-American, I was delighted to see another man of color play a role that was complex and off-kilter. However, the “bitchiness” of the character bothered me, and at times bordered on a strange shifty eyed Arab stereotype via Peter Lorre – and yet in the last 10 minutes of the film Lopes finds a way of redeeming Zemar – not as a person – but as a character in the film. Because no matter no matter how “true to life” some movies’ people seem – one must not forget we are watching characters. And behind every character…is a philosophy.
Griffith did well as Chris – it’s a role Viggo Mortensen would’ve craved had he been 25 years younger. Griffith is a better actor, but there were times I did not believe his brooding. It would have been even more powerful if Griffith was more like his delusional white friends and had still been PRO-America and then gradually lost himself in Zemar’s Velvet Underground revenge games – discovering his own status as a racist imperialist and as a ‘pawn in the game’ but these are minor points and only ones I speak of in order to be fair and honorable to the film. To not be tough on a tough movie would be to dishonor it. And all works of art are flawed. It’s just that there are times when the artist must speak to his fellow artist and tell him exactly how his work stirred him and what questions it prompted. That’s how we all grow. It took great courage and talent to make Afghan Hound. For all his absurd “spiritual suffering” ethos, Scorsese couldn’t do it (he lacks the courage – plus he’s too busy making sure DiCaprio is brushing his teeth or God knows what) and neither could Aronofsky or any other establishment director who supposed to be known for taking risks and being honest.
American cinema does mirror the American society in that it is a socio-pathic, self-aggrandizing world that does little to change, challenge, or reflect on our history, mores, and accepted values. For this alone, Alessandro must be commended.
Final Note: Brian Alessandro’s use of wide-angle masters and subtle shifts in acting styles (look at the white American family the movie with that of the Afghani family, even the styles – within the perceived Naturalism – is different!) is effective and bristle with tension and a strange un-reconciled understanding. I am not sure how he achieved some of the things he did (which I am grateful for) but I know his work beckons repeated viewings and I hope he is a director who will continue to make honest and penetrating films.