Visual Liberation: Where It All Began

Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s “Ways of Seeing”


Visual Liberation is decolonizing the gaze and conception of movies and celebrating the underdog’s vision of life as it pertains to challenging racism, misogyny, and capitalism on screen…and in life.

The Brecht Forum’s poster for the 2002 Visual Liberation Film Festival: a program of radical humanist filmmaking in NYC.

Visual Liberation (or “Cinematic Decolonization”) refers to movies that are made with the purpose of freeing both the audience and the creator’s minds, freeing them of the shackles of mental oppression, the remnants of a colonized (brainwashed) mind.  Whether they are mainstream, downstream, commercial movies or obscure films — it doesn’t matter. But they must exhibit some kind of genuine revolt within their frames. And they must not be films with a corporate agenda exploiting social unrest and “issues” that are fashionable, which is what Hollywood and advertising have done, rendering true revolutionary fervor obsolete, ironic, or safe.

What we forget – or perhaps never directly acknowledge– is the fact that what we regard as a “movie,” in the traditional American Hollywood sense, is a conception of the Western World’s White Ruling Class. It’s disturbing that, instead of trying to evolve one’s own aesthetic and ideas of how to usurp the rules dictated and imposed by Hollywood filmmaking, filmmakers with a social conscience attempt to make “important” message movies by using the very same rules and techniques and beliefs created by the hallmark of racism and misogyny: Hollywood.

Visual Liberation is at once personal, political, and radical in both and style and content. These are simply movies made as “Protest Films” the way protest music is made and oppose capitalist and xenophobic values (Hollywood) and regards socially conscious cinema as a combination of radical acting, writing, directing, editing, etc

Entire roster/program for the 2002 Visual Liberation film festival at the Brecht Forum, notice the variety of movies.

Visual Liberation is an ever-changing list of films and discussions about movies that could potentially be regarded as literal “protest” films.  The goal of this is to remind ourselves that true insurgent art does (and can) exist within the marginalized and oppressed classes who don’t need permission to make films, that marketing companies don’t own history and socially conscious films don’t need to be dictated to and produced by Corporate Media companies in order to be “important”. 

Dennis Leroy Kangalee has written, theorized, and executed “protest cinema” and now after nearly 20 years later of having the honor of closing the Brecht Forum’s Visual Liberation film festival in 2002, his ideas and ruminations on narrative filmmaking and revolution have developed into a series of sketches/essays that becoming the blueprint for a podcast dedicated to reinstating the venom of insurrectionary art and the danger of ideas/emotions presented on screen; celebrating well known scenes from beloved mainstream films to depictions from the outer edges of our society, removed from the radar of the zeitgeist and always acknowledging the power of those under acknowledged films that rightfully deserve their place and critical assessment -alongside the best of Rap and Punk rock albums.

This is just the beginning. Stay tuned about the podcast and the program notes that go live in September, 2021.

Visual Liberation: Episode 2

Excerpted brainstorms from Podcast Episode Two:

Midnight meditations on flickers, Paul Robeson, the morality of performing in front of a camera, and the embryo of a wobbly cinema

 https://anchor.fm/dennis-leroy-kangalee/episodes/The-Black-Russians-and-Notes-for-a-Wobbly-Cinema-e1ai0em/a-a6v85tr

Episode Two – Excerpts, Notes & Brainstorms from November 19, 2021 12:48AM

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…I light the candle – and like a film reel running through a projector in the head – I stare at the subtle dips and dives of shadows it tosses – I lay on the floor and I stare up at the ceiling and watch the flickers above the candle dance above the photo of Robeson and Eisenstein…(You wonder what John Berger might have made of it)

The shadows remind me not of the perfunctory Plato’s allegory of the cave – cause in Kangalee’s Cave we’re prisoners of truth, reality is never far from us; if anything we crave fantasy!

But the flickers remind me of the feeling I had as a young artist, the excitement I felt thinking about the plays I’d done…and the films I hoped to one day see.

Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman beautifully conceded that if theater was his wife, film was his mistress.  In some way I could relate – but for me and in my formative conception of Visual Liberation —  it was if art was my wife and activism was my mistress.  But one day I realized:  it is quite possible to  have all your desires in ONE BOOK.

(Speaking of books:  read John Tytell’s “Art Exile and Outrage.” About Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s performance group, The Living Theater and the extraordinary combination of Brecht and Artaud in American political Theater. )

*

Last month I mentioned 3 films – all quite different and none prescriptions of or my conception of a revolutionary film – but each in its own way certainly radical – and therefore an example of Visual Liberation —  Chameleon St, Shadows and Dog Day Afternoon.

I realized later why I mentioned these films:  the black consciousness and majestic anarchism of Harris’ masterpiece coincided with my own aesthetic connection to Cassavetes’ jazz-inspired slice of life method-acting jam on identity, race, art, and friendship. All these themes and ideas seemed to coalesce for me in a passionate way simply by witnessing Al Pacino’s diatribes against the system in Dog Day Afternoon.  I also mentioned Tytell’s book because Malina plays Pacino’s mother in the film…and was a real-life mentor of sorts. Her presence in Dog Day Afternoon underscores its revolutionary fervor, there’s an almost organized Artaudian mood – an impulse to literally riot – within the frames of that one movie by that Hollywood radical himself, Sidney Lumet…

Let’s get back to candles:

These midnight gesticulations on the wall made me think of my trip to Moscow in 1992.I don’t know why maybe it’s because that’s where I first smoked a cigarette and discovered when the glimmer of a candle had burned out: that Pushkin was a black man (the statue of him in Moscow is a site to see)…and that Jean Genet was a prophet of sorts, I had witnessed Roman Victuc’s production of the Maids and instantly realized what an Artaudian experience could be in the theater.  1992: Bush SR was still president. I was 16 – and it was The year I discovered Paul Robeson, Eisenstein and made sense of my visit to the Moscow art theater.

*

American Protest music and American Protest film – Political Filmmaking in a Left-Wing sense; a Wobbly Cinema if you will —

Dylan, Cash, Seeger, Havens, Joan Baez, Odetta, Bessie Smith…Billie Holiday. 

When I mention these American artists what do you think of?

Now, let’s think about this in terms of a specific form of American movies.

 Aesthetic and Ideological Foundation: Micheaux, Charlie Chaplin, Shirley Clarke, Menelik Shabbaz, Fronza Woods, Julie Dash, Michael Roemer, MVP, Pasolini, Kramer, Cassavetes, Ivan Dixon, etc. Within this…underlying all of this is Paul Robeson.

The spirit of Robeson, who insisted you have to be on one side of oppression or the other.  And the artist to him was a moralist who had to fight against abuse, poverty, genocide, and rape.

Recently Rosalie Gancie, artist and publisher in MD, had shared a lovely facsmile of a program circa, 1954-1955 of an announcement declaring a Calypso band at a gathering in support of Paul Robeson who had lost his passport; and the supporting fundraiser – happily endorsed by Charlie Chaplin –she shared the event materials on social media and it was so interesting to see it…and it immediately made me embarrassed at how the Left have shrunk artistically and culturally in POP and in the underground, or the fringes.  

One of the greatest performing artists of the twentieth century and one of the towering figures of the left as well as one its worst ambassador’s, ironically, for cinema.

Tragically Robeson was one of The White Man’s Movie Industry’s grossest unintentional accomplices for the of stereotypes and derogatory projections of black actors in film. He was a prisoner of the white gaze, while knowing full well – in the end, that his revolutionary desires in cinema had been highjacked and betrayed by his trust and belief that most of the white people he worked with in film would enable what he wanted to do for the common man, the working man…and especially the person of African descent. He never came off the way he wanted to in a movie…

 The exceptions are few, but most notably Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul (one of the only movies I can watch him in)

 ( I highly suggest you read Susan Robeson’s book about her grandfather’s struggle for more detailed information about this.  One of the several heartbreaking ingredients of his life…)

Because there is very little freewheeling revolutionary spirit and dignity in many of the motion pictures he acted in, it’s hard to watch him at all, frankly, on screen — I think it was Ruby Dee who lamented that she could never watch a movie he was in…and part of this reason is because it is a political and moral choice and vulnerability to perform in front of a camera and/or allow another human being to “capture” a part of you through a lens.  Think about it:  it’s a take.

“Let’s do a take.”

“Can’t take your photo?”

Or “Let’s take your photo.” As if I have it already and will transfer it someplace else?

“We’re gonna do another take. This time when you look at her, try not to blink.”

The Actor has to now open himself up to…what?

Nothing perhaps. Maybe that’s better. A take. Hmm.

As in…”take my soul,” but leave my body in tact? What is taken? Is the Western conception of film ultimately about the taking and capturing? Is it essentially about taming the subject into a ‘frame’ and recording death of the spirit; extinguishing the passion that cannot be contained?

In photography, they even say “Can I shoot you?”

(A riff on Taking, Capturing, & Shooting A Creature, Idea or Feeling With a Camera: The Western conception of film is about more than dominance, it is about conquest and colonizing a subject, a person, an event, a place and sticking a flag into its gut, while declaring the gardeners through to give up their seeds for the camera! From Herzog to Coppola, the film director is the last talisman of the White Romantic Colonizer who sets out to dictate to others what he cannot create in his own home!

When the bourgeoisie locked up and burned down the Shaman’s vision quest – that ran the gamut of every emotion – it scared the French, embarrassed the English, and made the German, Spanish, and Italians suspicious. To the former, language and behavior was about moving up and through a society; to the latin languages and the more insistent Caucasian tribes — it was about using language as both a strong greeting and even stronger goodbye; getting you into the boat and getting you out. Everything in between was tea. Only a Brit with a dumb camera around his neck ominously like a gun with a silencer could ask an Indigenous or African chief he’d just pounded into a deck of boat after having raped his sister (out of sight, of course) – “Would you mind if I shot you?” )

But for a moment consider what Paul Robeson was up against.

Here was this brilliant man, tall, stately, athletic with an incredible voice who was a wonderful stage actor and an even better singer and orator.

(And a remarkable writer, by the way.)

He was light years ahead of himself – and his vision was greater than anyone around him could probably conceive; his wife certainly was a loving accomplice…and he was quite admired by Sergei Eisenstein, whom Robeson in turn, had respect for.  You wonder “Why didn’t they work together?”

 Well, you can certainly bet the USA would never have allowed THAT to happen.  And yes, it was that bad and YES they do have that power (namely cause we give it to them)

The forces that be will always make sure that highly talented, gifted or brilliant people (in any capacity) NEVER work together, collaborate or commune.  They will always try to separate them. 

 *

And now I leave you with this:

“On The Willful Ignorance of Andrei Tarkovsky:”

Mikhail Romm (1901-1971) was a Soviet Film Director and Teacher. His film 

“Dream” (1941) – about spiritual crisis and poverty – was supposedly deemed by FDR as being one the greatest films ever made. In 1956, his student Andrei Tarkovsky made his first film, “The Killers.” It was a student thesis movie. Based on a Hemingway short story, Romm admonished Tarkovsky for having the lack of imagination and sensitivity for shamefully employing an actor in black-face in the movie! Romm told Tarkovsky – who had previously been studying Arabic! – that he had learned nothing about humanity and that he had no imagination. He decried that the young man had defiled the memory of the greatest Russian Poet, Alexander Pushkin – who was black! (Indeed, the film is disappointing in that it reveals the casual racism of the White world at that time via the young and ignorant Tarkovsky. But it’s very telling and revealing that such an “innocently racist” young man would become a deeply compassionate and humane filmmaker a few years later.) In any event, Romm would have none of it, he chided Tarkovsky for being influenced by Fascism and American racism and deemed him counter-revolutionary. In the next 2 years, the young Tarkovsky did a lot of soul searching. Legend also has it that Paul Robeson visited Romm after one of his 1959 concerts at Lenin Stadium (Khabarovsk) when the USA’s ban on his passport had been lifted. Romm refused to introduce the young Tarkovsky for fear of Robeson wanting to see the lad’s first film. I assume somewhere in all this…The great Tarkovsky had learned a valuable lesson and came to understand in the words of King: that there is nothing “more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

 We need to return to the embryo of THE NEED FOR A RADICAL CINEMA.

If you are making a film — Have something more to say than ACTION!

Peace. 

*

https://anchor.fm/dennis-leroy-kangalee/embed/episodes/The-Black-Russians-and-Notes-for-a-Wobbly-Cinema-e1ai0em

Visual Liberation: Where It All Began

Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s “Ways of Seeing”

Visual Liberation is decolonizing the gaze and conception of movies and celebrating the underdog’s vision of life as it pertains to challenging racism, misogyny, and capitalism on screen…and in life.

The Brecht Forum’s poster for the 2002 Visual Liberation Film Festival: a program of radical humanist filmmaking in NYC.

Visual Liberation (or “Cinematic Decolonization”) refers to movies that are made with the purpose of freeing both the audience and the creator’s minds, freeing them of the shackles of mental oppression, the remnants of a colonized (brainwashed) mind.  Whether they are mainstream, downstream, commercial movies or obscure films — it doesn’t matter. But they must exhibit some kind of genuine revolt within their frames. And they must not be films with a corporate agenda exploiting social unrest and “issues” that are fashionable, which is what Hollywood and advertising have done, rendering true revolutionary fervor obsolete, ironic, or safe.

What we forget – or perhaps never directly acknowledge– is the fact that what we regard as a “movie,” in the traditional American Hollywood sense, is a conception of the Western World’s White Ruling Class. It’s disturbing that, instead of trying to evolve one’s own aesthetic and ideas of how to usurp the rules dictated and imposed by Hollywood filmmaking, filmmakers with a social conscience attempt to make “important” message movies by using the very same rules and techniques and beliefs created by the hallmark of racism and misogyny: Hollywood.

Visual Liberation is at once personal, political, and radical in both and style and content. These are simply movies made as “Protest Films” the way protest music is made and oppose capitalist and xenophobic values (Hollywood) and regards socially conscious cinema as a combination of radical acting, writing, directing, editing, etc

Entire roster/program for the 2002 Visual Liberation film festival at the Brecht Forum, notice the variety of movies.

Visual Liberation is an ever-changing list of films and discussions about movies that could potentially be regarded as literal “protest” films.  The goal of this is to remind ourselves that true insurgent art does (and can) exist within the marginalized and oppressed classes who don’t need permission to make films, that marketing companies don’t own history and socially conscious films don’t need to be dictated to and produced by Corporate Media companies in order to be “important”. 

Dennis Leroy Kangalee has written, theorized, and executed “protest cinema” and now after nearly 20 years later of having the honor of closing the Brecht Forum’s Visual Liberation film festival in 2002, his ideas and ruminations on narrative filmmaking and revolution have developed into a series of sketches/essays that becoming the blueprint for a podcast dedicated to reinstating the venom of insurrectionary art and the danger of ideas/emotions presented on screen; celebrating well known scenes from beloved mainstream films to depictions from the outer edges of our society, removed from the radar of the zeitgeist and always acknowledging the power of those under acknowledged films that rightfully deserve their place and critical assessment -alongside the best of Rap and Punk rock albums.

This is just the beginning. Stay tuned about the podcast and the program notes that go live in September, 2021.

BRIAN ALESSANDRO’S PASSIONATE DEFENSE OF A CULT CLASSIC

Why “As an Act of Protest” is still relevant…

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. 

Che Ayende as Cairo in the film’s ultimate de-colonialist climax

The story centers on Abner, imbued with a glorious righteous indignation by writer-director Dennis Leroy Kangalee (originally “Dennis Leroy Moore“), 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.

Marvin X’s 2002 review of “As an Act of Protest” as featured in his book This Crazy House Called America.

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. 

Writer-Director Dennis Leroy Kangalee in 2001.

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.

As an Act of Protest: The film that won’t go away…

A film that started with the murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999…and resuscitated it’s social relevance and artistic merit itself, pathetically, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.  Death’s energy may kickstart the wheel of protest art but it is the hope of a creative retaliation that that makes it explode….

“When will American cinema catch up to the full-throttle legacy of Rebel music and songs that declaim change and challenge authority?”

                          – Robert Kramer, American Radical Filmmaker (Ice, Milestones)

protest-home-page

When all is said and done

you stand alone with a catalog of memories and actions. And like the Actor, it is our actions ultimately that define who we are, how we choose to fight or retreat. We all feel like the Nowhere Man sometimes but maybe it is not failure or malaise that consumes, but risks that genuinely tried.  Not “nowhere plans” but actual attempts – stabs at the wall, great failures perhaps – but proof one has lived and had thoughts and some passion for SOMETHING.  And, if anything, at least my words can do what I can’t: resist trembling in the face of Capitalism and the force of obedience.  The “bastard literature” which may have given birth to my own madness is one that I claim with glee.  Radical art, protest art, works and ideas that rejuvenates every sense of urgency from the eyebrow to the bowels.  There is no more time for games. This ends it all.  Walk into the valley, the great wash of the sun. turn your back on mediocrity. make art that can’t – but tries – to alter the world.  And when they say you’re hateful, you’re diseased, you’re un-romantic – just let your sigh do the talking.

It is the systemic racism and hatred of the white man’s organized political structure that gives credence to the 2001 film As an Act of Protest which depicts the downward spiral of a Black actor who questions the morality of practicing art in the face of a hostile and  savage world that seeks to annihilate Black people in the United States of America.

After a successful re-emergence of this cult classic in 2015, Speller St Films is preparing to finally release a limited edition of the DVD replete with a special facsimile of the original screenplay and the notes that made up my own conception of ‘Third Cinema 2000: a cocktail of guerrilla film-making and the political stringency of Black and Brown peoples oppressed and colonized throughout the world, who not only are conscious of their condition, but seek to change it by “any means necessary.”  As an Act of Protest is the anti-Spike Lee version of a socially conscious films and attacks racism from the oppressed’s point of view with no irony or pop-art trappings; no advertising hipness or cool slang.  It is meant to destroy the oppressor and all who saddles his gaze with his and uplift the dignity of the radical who fights him.  It is a direct descendant of the gravity of Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,  Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama and downright dangerous Blacks films like The Spook Who Sat By The Door.

Acknowledged by Variety in 2002 as being a “powerful” film that aims to “teach and shock,”  it was heralded by many on the underground and marginalized film critics (such as Kam Williams and Hugh Pearson) who championed the film when mainstream papers refused to address it.  Woefully pertinent and tragically eternally relevant in the racist world we live in, As an Act of Protest is a gritty, poetic, theatrical drama that does what the best conscious hip-hop albums did and what the gnarliest politically-tinged punk albums sought to do:  it speaks truth and implicates us all in the decision-making of how we are going to live our lives.

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For more information visit: https://dennisleroykangalee.wordpress.com/videos/as-an-act-of-protest/

And Pre-Order your digital copy now!

As an Act of Protest will only be available for streaming until December 1, 2020.

The Poet & His Passionate Plague: Remembering Holy Madman Antonin Artaud & the Theater of Cruelty

A disaster is when you wake up tomorrow and everything you knew has changed; a nightmare is when you wake up and you have to justify and explain your anger to your oppressors as they beat you.   

Unlike a plague a social cataclysm is far worse because the oil of the machinery keeps running.  Fascism rests on nationalism and maniacal adherence to preservation of racial identity and hierarchy and a defense of that order, it is a swift, direct and organized violence.  Massacres are surprising upswells of homicidal urges; genocides contain the celebration of racism and all its devilish rituals, they are capitalist perversions gone amok, they are conscientious slaughters that expect you to pay rent on the land you’re being executed on. When the bureaucracy is still in tact you don’t have Fascism (fascists don’t care for their enemies taxes) you have ‘Atrocity Exhibitionism’: murder in the first degree, things may feel chaotic where in actuality they are all well choreographed.  Even what we come to view as science, and nature and luck — all collide under the ominous shadow of State Carnage.  In the corners, swelling — are all the desires of artistic paroxysms which are waiting to explode, to actually combat and taunt the sword…with a pen. When a plague rears its head – it is a sign that something else is occurring.  It is here that the Theater has an opportunity to shine but quite often it doesn’t.  Not because it can’t but because the virus of racism usurps the potential for not only a catharsis, but the hope for a direct expression of the angst of the oppressed and all who find themselves crushed under the boot of the state.  The only way to fight it is to enact a catastrophe upon the plague itself.  And that is nearly impossible when a nation becomes a mass of spectators and collectors of awful visions as opposed to creators of them.  

Poverty porn. Lynch porn.  Snuff films.  Bulleted brains. Crucified throats. An asthmatic at midnight.  Skeletons at the door.  Take your pick.  

The New Millennium scourge now, although always uncertain, insistent and insidious, is more sophisticated than the bubonic plague and more nefarious than the Capitalism of the 20th century cause it is one we enable with our knees…

(We have sowed the seeds

of Kitty

Genovese)

*

The responsibility is on us – it is on visionaries, artists, revolutionary Leftist activists, humanitarians, it is on good citizenry and that is something latent in many people because  the answer’s not going to come from a place that the government mandates or a site that the internet hosts.  It will not come from endowments from the sky or in the form of a Netflix series.  It will come from us.  Crisis, catastrophes, holocausts – are survived and illuminated by those untangling themselves from the web.  WE have to figure this out on our own, we have to move forward.

*

With the pandemic on the mind – and the reminder of white violence against black bodies clutching the spin of the world at the moment- amidst an alarming death toll —

— and the macabre glee that the media seems to encourage – a sort of digitized schadenfreude – my mind has constantly been dreaming and returning to the past and some of the hallmarks of my own creative inspirations…When I was most free, at my most dangerous dynamic and draconian.  When electricity still surged through my veins.

The work of Antonin Artaud deserves great appreciation in any time in this century, but particularly now because of the Corona Virus and the racism that has been unleashed as a result of it, intertwining themselves into a plague like no other – and because the theater itself is a dead organ which no one has the courage or the impetus to actually want to bury.

Artaud was a French surrealist (although he later broke with the surrealists) and was a maverick of the European arts scene in the 1930’s, he was noted as a superb actor (and acknowledged for his fierce classically handsome features: acute cheekbones and intense eyes) and appeared in Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc as the Monk – easily one of the greatest works of 20th century art ever created.

Artaud-Dreyer
Artaud as the Monk in Dreyer’s overwhelming masterpiece “The Passion of Joan of Arc

Artaud was an even better poet and writer; a brilliant thinker and the creator of the ‘Theater of Cruelty’, a theater he felt that would impel mankind to acknowledge his weaknesses and strengths and reinvigorate the human spirit to battle injustice, bourgeois malaise, Westernized imperialistic values, and re-connect not only the East and West – but the body and the spirit.  his theater was a physically demanding and emotionally violent one, a theater that relied on literal blood sweat and tears; a theater that was based on saliva and the serious intention of changing the audience – meaning the world.  He believed if the theater could act as a plague onto the audience – we would be healed.  If you could feel the horror of oppression on stage, actually feel it in your bones as an audience member – you would be forced to change society.   Confrontational, sweaty, and urgent; nearly impossible but blisteringly inspirational: Julian Beck & Judith Malina’s Living Theater (The Brig, Paradise Now), LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s Black Revolutionary Theater (The Toilet, Dutchman, Slaveship)  and rock bands in the sixties like The Doors (“The End,” “When the Music’s Over”) —  were heavily influenced by Artaud and are probably the most practical examples of his nearly impenetrable ideas.  Even the heartbreaking eyes of Rene Falconetti who plays Joan of Arc in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc was no doubt influenced by Artaud’s notion of bodily insurrection: her eyes give us a revolution within her face, compelling the entire screen to protect and save her from her murder. 

For a mainstream example in 1970’s-80’s cinema, watch Pasolini’s Salo (or 120 Days of Sodom) or Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon — the sheer force and commitment to revolt in Al Pacino and Judith Malina’s performances exude a sense of what Artaud hoped for his actors to convey.  Although accused incessantly of “agit-prop” and being “too angry” for middle-class cinephiles my own 2001 guerrilla movie As an Act of Protest , an ‘anti-Sundance Independent film’ contains a palpable rage and incurs an Artaudian spirit in the last quarter of the film, where I meld Franz Fanon and Antonin Artaud into a theatrical mise-en-scene which spreads on the screen like a spark kindling before an imminent insurrection against racism….by metabolizing Artaud’s wishful theatrical rage…we find our way to Fanon’s cathartic ending.  It is not mere revenge we are after, it is healing.  The erasure of trauma.

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Break on Through: The Doors’ Jim Morrison was heavily influenced by Antonin Artaud.

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The Living Theater’s anti-Military 1964 play “The Brig” was a crystallization of Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. The government forced them off stage and out of the country…

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Hollywood Revolt: Artaud & Method Acting.  Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon”, fueling some of the greatest anti-police screen acting in the history of cinema…enough to incite a riot. 

Antonin Artaud is one of the Forgotten men relegated to the desks and journals of aesthete frauds and smug pretentious theater historians who, like the mainstream media’s imprisonment of the word liberation and revolution- try to keep Artaud confined to an intellectual ghetto know that has somehow traversed everything from so called experimental theater to pop new wave music.  Yet Artaud remains – for the most smug Baby Boomer theater historians – a chic prototype of the great mad poet who suffered in the asylum not to free the bodies and minds of the people – but to give credence and legitimacy to MFA and graduate students who choose to type about the past as opposed to writing/confronting our present and therefore create a future.  Artaud’s desire to overturn repressive systems, rebel against the hatred and imperialistic order of European governments, and wish to author a completely new language for the theater based on cries, screams, and shouts of the highest order is often met with mockery, denigration, and flippant irony suggesting that revolution of the body politic, human soul, and spiritual outreach is not impractical but amateurish and the result of a deranged mind.

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Artaud, the Actor about 1920 [from Jack Hirschman’s 1965 Artaud Anthology by City Lights Bookstore]
Antonin Artaud is a forgotten man because those who were most inspired by him died as he did, mainly, and those perhaps like me – those of us who swung and licked up the crumbs of the revolutionary cultural  feasts that exploded in the 20th century—have suffered badly exploring in the dark, often breaking our own legs as we attempted to find the stairway up to the bedroom but instead tolerated the crevice between the final step and the landing, unsure of what we might find if we went

All

The

Way

Like the man looking for his keys under the streetlamp ON THE OPPOSITE side of the street…we question and wonder, we stall and procrastinate. Like Hamlet, we retreat into our well plumbed brains holding on to the gasp that might just release that emotional molotov cocktail we are ashamed to throw.  Unlike Hamlet, we have to spend more time enacting the destruction of the oppressor, not debating it.

Artaud resonates because his hallucinations were not just real, but painfully genuine.

He was a drug addict who suffered before and after entering an asylum, a man who wrote perhaps the greatest essay on van Gogh and the real meaning behind suicide; the first Anglo European male surrealist to declare a new form of theater while simultaneously denouncing colonialism, brutality and racism, Western provincialism…and the deep deep holiness of the Original Peoples (read his Conquest of Mexico play which excoriates the Spanish conquistadores and devises a play in which in a psychedelic reversal of history:  the Indians righteously defeat the Spanish racists and I guarantee you will scratch yourself trying to figure out what happened to revolutionary anti-colonialist  people in the theater and why are there no Anglo-Western theater poets like this today?)

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Rage Against The Machine: An Artaudian moment in “As an Act of Protest” where the main character destroys the TV which frames his oppressor – The Fascist Mayor – as a virtual omnipotent entity.

He was a genius because he saw all that he could not somehow achieve and actually expressed that; he was a seer who had the temerity to recognize – in brilliant hallucinations- both his own abilities and desires as well as his limits and failures. Like Rimbaud he knew his death lay in the impractical reaches of his own art. Unlike Rimbaud he did not commit suicide of the mind or spirit (as Rimbaud did at 19 by giving up poetry to become an arms dealer) but he waved his own white flag as I now do, as we all must learn how to do.

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Artaud, after shock therapy treatments and his time spent in a Rodez mental institution. 1946

There is strength in concession. It is not surrender. It is admitting simply the truth. And sometimes the bad guys do win.

Or rather

The good ones.

Do.

Lose.

*

Read his words.   If he doesn’t make you want to form a theater of revolt than I don’t know who will.  Read his essays.  If you don’t tremble inside it’s not cause you don’t understand his brilliant use of language or the intensity of his visions — it is, perhaps, because you are too far removed from your imagination or your soul.  Sometimes both.

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My 1997 production of “Dutchman” jolted the MTV generation with this Artaudian rendition of Baraka’s masterpiece with Damon Gupton and Morena Baccarin (courtesy of HERE Theater, NYC)

I hope to convert you immediately, but that is highly unlikely.  Antonin Artaud is dense and mysterious, alchemical and concrete, surreal and quotidian, spiritual and political.  To read Artaud is unlike any other experience, he is one of the few poet-philosophers of our time who actually embodied his ideas, whose imaginative thrust outdid the corpuscles of his own body. 

His words live and breathe on the page even if they could not find their way on the stage.  Proving to us all that:  the art is not in the “final product.”  It is in the germ. 

*

Excerpts below from “The Theater and the Plague” by Antonin Artaud, from The Theater and Its Double, 1938.  (Translation from French by MC Richards, Grove Press, 1958)

*

“Once a plague is established in a city, the regular forms collapse.  There is no maintenance of roads and sewers, no army, no police, no municipal administration. Pyres are lit at random to burn the dead, with whatever means are available. Each family wants to have its own…”

“The dregs of the population, apparently immunized by their frenzied greed, enter the open houses and pillage riches they know will serve no purpose or profit.  And at that moment the theater is born. The theater, i.e., an immediate gratuitousness provoking acts without use or profit. “

“But whereas the images of the plague, occurring in relation to a powerful state of physical disorganization, are like the last volleys of a spiritual force that is exhausting itself, the images of poetry in the theater are a spiritual force that begins its trajectory in the senses and does without reality altogether.  Once launched upon the fury of his task, an actor requires infinitely more power to keep from committing a crime than a murderer needs courage to complete his act, and it is here, in its very gratuitousness, that the action and effect of a feeling in the theater appears infinitely more valid than that of a feeling fulfilled in life.

Compared with the murderer’s fury which exhausts itself, that of the tragic actor remains enclosed within a perfect circle. The murderer’s fury has accomplished an act, discharges itself, and loses contact with the force that inspired it but can no longer sustain it.  That of the actor has taken a form that negates itself to just the degree it frees itself and dissolves into universality.”

“If the essential theater is like the plague, it is not because it is contagious, but because like the plague it is the revelation, the bringing forth, the exteriorization of a depth of latent cruelty by means of which all the perverse possibilities of the mind, whether of an individual or a people, are localized. 

Like the plague the theater is the time of evil, the triumph of dark powers that are nourished by a power even more profound until extinction.

In the theater as in the plague there is a kind of strange sun, a light of abnormal intensity by which it seems that difficult and even the impossible suddenly become our normal element…”

“The theater, like the plague, is in the image of this carnage and this essential separation.  It releases conflicts, disengages powers, liberates possibilities, and if these possibilities and these powers are dark , it is the fault not of the plague nor of the theater, but of life…”

And the intoxicating, nearly impenetrable,  closing paragraphs which never cease to raise the hairs on the back of my neck: 

“The theater like the plague is a crisis which is resolved by death or cure.  And the plague is a superior disease because it is a total crisis after which nothing remains except death or an extreme purification.  Similarly the theater is a disease because it is the supreme equilibrium which cannot be achieved without destruction.  It invites the mind to share a delirium which exalts its energies; and we can see, to conclude, that from the human point of view, the action of theater, like that of plague, is beneficial, for, impelling man to see themselves as they are, it causes the mask to fall, reveals the lie, the slackness, baseness, and hypocrisy of our world; it shakes off the asphyxiating inertia of matter which invades even the clearest testimony of the sense; and in revealing to collectivities of men their dark power, their hidden force, it invites them to take, in the face of destiny, a superior and heroic attitude they would never have assumed without it.  

And the question we must now ask is whether, in this slippery world which is committing suicide without noticing it, there can be found a nucleus of men capable of imposing this superior notion of the theater, men who will restore to all of us the natural and magic equivalent of the dogmas we no longer believe.”  

                                                                                                    — Antonin Artaud, 1938 

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