(not quite) a literary journal


Of Kings and Schmucks by Rudy Ralph Martinez

As someone who would love nothing more than to make a career out of writing about film in a litany of ways[1]—from reviews, the socio-political impact the young artform has had on the 20th and 21st centuries, how different countries have approached adapting literary works onto celluloid,[2] etc.—the opportunity to engage with the community in and around the Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) is an opportunity I ideally wouldn’t approach in a lazy fashion. However, here I am, two days before the festivities begin, mere hours away from deadline, and still mulling over how to approach this piece. I’m supposed to briefly discuss TFF’s history, which I’ll accomplish in the next paragraph, and tie it into the current political climate in America, which I’ll accomplish in the paragraph after that. Somewhere along the way I’ll laud TFF for providing such a large platform for marginalized voices, because even though it stokes hatred amongst right-wing politicians and partisans who may or may not mail you a pipe bomb, marginalized voices need to be heard. I’ll wrap it up on a personal note, briefly ruminating on what could be a formative experience for a young writer. All that being said, let’s talk about 9/11.

On September 11th, 2001, the world witnessed a devastating terrorist attack on American soil that forever altered the course of history.[3] Nearly three thousand people were killed in mere hours, with most of the casualties caused by the collapse of the Twin Towers, located in Lower Manhattan. In the months following the attack, the American public struggled to make sense of this unprecedented tragedy.[4] As the literal and figurative dust cleared from the World Trade Center, actor-director Robert De Niro, along with Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff, founded the Tribeca Film Festival. According to a New York Times article from December 2001, plans for the festival had existed prior to 9/11 but were accelerated after the attacks turned the neighborhood into a “ghost town.” This was an attempt to revitalize the Tribeca neighborhood both economically and spiritually, and to create solidarity amongst artists not just in New York but around the world. As New York and the entertainment world prepare for an 18th installment of TFF, it stands as one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world, ranking alongside Sundance and Cannes in name recognition. However, an event forged in the wake of tragedy nearly suffered one just six months ago.

Last fall, a Florida man (via Brooklyn) named Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr. was arrested by federal authorities after he was suspected of mailing 13 pipe bombs to various high-profile democrats and outspoken critics of President Donald Trump, including TFF co-founder Robert De Niro. Of interest here is noting that nearly all of Sayoc’s targets were politicians or appointed government officials: the Obamas, the Clintons, former Vice President Joe Biden, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Cory Booker, former Attorney General Eric Holder, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and former CIA Director John Brennan. The remaining targets were two billionaires and an actor. While not an elected official or ever having been appointed to a position of power, billionaire George Soros has found himself at the center of several right-wing conspiracies, making him an apt target for Sayoc. The same goes for billionaire democratic donor Tom Steyer, who has spent millions of dollars in an effort to have Trump impeached. This leaves us with De Niro, the only artist[5] targeted by the male dancer-cum-failed MAGA Bomber. Sayoc mailed a bomb to De Niro’s Tribeca offices. De Niro, one of the more decorated and critically-lauded actors to ever live, has made no secret of his animus toward the President, most famously saying “Fuck Trump” during last year’s Tony Awards at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. The President responded by calling De Niro “a very low IQ individual,” a disappointingly tame response in relation to how he’s responded to critics in the past. It’d be easy to claim Sayoc targeted De Niro solely because of his outspokenness in recent years—this is a partial truth. Instead, the targeting of De Niro and his Tribeca offices was subconsciously fueled by an anti-intellectual fervor that’s gripped Trump’s “base” the last several years along with hatred toward an artist whose used their platform in a socially responsible way while providing a platform to marginalized voices.

The actions taken by Sayoc are a personification of the passions for which Trump provides an outlet. He’s allowed for overtly racist and fascist sensibilities to enter the mainstream, and they wear the masks of both talking heads and violent actors. Even before the 2016 election, Trump rallies were notorious for being messy affairs. His idiotic and euphemistically violent rhetoric begets idiotic and violent behavior. Sayoc’s idealized form, that of a steroid-marred right-wing conspiracy theorist living in a van, is the antithesis of the sort of individual TFF attracts and provides a platform to.[6] Of the 96 feature films screened at last year’s festival, 46% of them were from filmmakers who identified as women. In fact, the festival closed with The Fourth Estate, the Liz Garbus-helmed Showtime series which presented the challenges journalists at the New York Times faced during Trump’s first year in office. It is not beyond one’s imagination to believe that Sayoc, like Trump, believes the New York Times (amongst other outlets) to be the “enemy of the people.” Trump (in)famously tried to pin Sayoc’s actions on the media, warning that the mainstream media had to “clean up its act, FAST.” Or what, Mr. President? Half of this year’s 103 feature films were directed or co-directed by women, 29% by people of color, and 13% from individuals who identify with the LGBTQIA community. Sayoc and those of his ilk hate the positive impact events like TFF have on communities during divisive times. There are fewer ways more productive of speaking truth to power than by making films, the crafting of poetry with images and characters, creating worlds as-of-yet imagined while immortalizing one’s lived experience.

Next week, I’ll be in New York City, a place I inexplicably abandoned two months ago,[7] surrounded by thousands of film enthusiasts and some of the biggest names currently working in the industry. I am filled with both excitement and humility in the lead-up to TFF. Had you told me a year ago that I would get to attend the premiere of Mary Harron’s Charlie Says or have an opportunity to see A Kid from Coney Island, a documentary about one of my all-time favorite NBA players and Brooklyn’s very own Stephon Marbury, I would have had only enough hubris to barely believe you. With the country as divisive as its ever been and no end in sight to the rampant confusion and polarity that’s scarred a generation, TFF will not be a refuge as much as it’ll be ground zero for the future of America and its relation to the arts.

[1] Wouldn’t mind teaching either.

[2] See: War and Peace.

[3] Yes, I know every action alters the course of history, with all of our choices, even those as insignificant as a blink, creating an infinite number of alternate timelines, but not all world historical events are created equal.

[4] Unprecedented in a Western context—we all know the West is guilty of having committed atrocity after atrocity to those peoples who inhabit parts of the world we now refer to as the Global South that would put 9/11 to “shame” in terms of sheer scale.

[5] You could (and should) argue politicians are artists in a Machiavellian mold and billionaire investors engage in ballet-like dances with their money, but none of Sayoc’s targets for assassination could ever match what De Niro accomplished in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy.

[6] Expect either a film or documentary about Sayoc to premiere at TFF within the next couple of years.

[7] A topic for another time.