Thursday, May 28, 2009

Eva Deutsch Costabel, painter/author

I first met Eva Deutsch Costabel on the evening of Wednesday, April 27th, at a 10th police precinct community meeting. I was there to speak about bicycles and pedestrian safety. As I spoke, Eva cheered me on, and after the meeting she approached me and said she wanted to "team up" with me to call the issue to the attention of Mayor Bloomberg. I gave Eva my contact information and she called me the next morning. We spoke and discussed a plan regarding how to have the matter effectively addressed... and during that conversation she invited me to visit her on a Saturday afternoon. I had no idea I would become a community activist with such a talented and accomplished woman who has been the subject of so many interviews.

Eva Deutsch Costabel was born in Yugoslavia and she grew up in an upper middle class Viennese family. Her mother was a liberated woman who owned a children's store and her father was in the chemical business. In 1941, the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia. Eva's father was arrested and he was accused of sabotage and he was killed at Treblinka in Poland. Later, the Nazis came and Eva and her mother and sister had half an hour to leave their home. Eva told me that when the Nazis were in her home she accidentally knocked over a vase and a Nazi wanted to shoot her. She had to beg for her life because the Nazi told her that "broken glass brings bad luck." Eva felt like a helpless victim and this was the first experience that motivated her to later become an activist. Eva and her mother and sister were sent to an Italian concentration camp in Croatia. Eva told me that none of the Jews in that camp were killed because "Italians don't kill Jews." During WW II, Eva did drawings of peasants. After the camp was closed, she joined the partisan army and after the war her family lived in one room in Rome. Eventually, they came to the United States in 1949.

In America, Eva got a job painting roses on make-up compacts.... for one penny a rose. And she learned English. She worked on window displays and became a package designer, which was her career for thirty-four years. And years later, she taught graphics at FIT and at the Parsons School of Design.

Eva has written many children's books and they are in libraries in schools because they are historically accurate as Eva is an impeccable researcher. Her books include "New England Village," published by Scribner in 1981, "The Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers and Craftsman," published by MacMillan in 1983, "The Jews of New Amsterdam," published by MacMillan in 1986, and "The Early People of Florida," published by MacMillan in 1993. Eva has visited all of the places she has written about. She did the cover art, the stories, and all of the inside illustrations for her books.

Eva is an ardent supporter of Israel and she is involved in many projects. She balances her literary career with her paintings and projects and she has written a memoir. This article appeared in "Chelsea Now".

I took Eva's photo, but she kept asking to take mine... telling me she is an excellent photographer. Well, it came time to say "good-bye" and Eva kissed me and said "Shalom." Yes, "hello" Eva and thank-you for sharing part of your Saturday afternoon with me. You are an inspiration.

The above painting, "Self Portrait after Klimt," by Eva Deutsch Costabel appears at this blog with her written permission.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mary Engel, photo and film archivist

This interview with Mary Engel about her parents, the talented filmmaker Morris Engel and the creative and legendary photographer Ruth Orkin, began over the telephone. As she requested during that call, I submitted a few questions to her in an E-mail... and her answers appear below.

The many biographies of Morris Engel all state he was a combat cameraman with the US Army Signal Corps during World War II, and he was present during the D-Day landings at Normandy. Morris Engel took much of the film footage that has appeared in documentaries featuring the D-Day landings. Morris Engel wrote and directed three films: "The Little Fugitive" (1953), "Lovers and Lollipops" (1956), and "Weddings and Babies" (1958). I recall first seeing "The Little Fugitive" as a child. It is about a young boy who is tricked into believing he shot his brother. He runs away to Coney Island and he has quite a day of adventure before his brother finds him and brings him home. Today, "The Little Fugitive" is recognized as a very well done independent film which influenced such filmmakers as John Cassavettes and Francois Truffaut. In April 2009, TCM aired a tribute to Morris Engel called "Morris Engel: The Independent" (2007). The documentary is by Mary Engel and it explores her father's life, career, and work with his wife Ruth Orkin.

During that same day in April, TCM showed a documentary called "Ruth Orkin: Frames of Life" (1997). The biographical documentary was also directed by Mary Engel and it is about her mother’s work during her career as a very talented and gifted photographer. So many of Ruth Orkin's photos give me a general feeling for times gone by and "Comic Book Readers," New York City, 1947, evokes a very personal and emotional nostalgic response. Mary can be seen in her mother's photo, "Mary and Morris Shaving," New York City, 1966.

These are Mary's replies to the questions:
Q: How do you think your father influenced independent film?
A: My father Morris Engel was one of the first independent filmmakers in New York City, and his film “Little Fugitive” (1953) has tremendous significance in film history. He made the film with my mother, photographer, Ruth Orkin. I think they both inspired many filmmakers, and the response to the film even today 56 years later is extraordinary. My father made the hand-held 35mm movie camera with a friend Charlie Woodruff, and that enabled him to shoot “Little Fugitive” from the little boy’s perspective, with only one assistant. The film was made for only $30,000, during a four-week period over the summer in Coney Island. “Little Fugitive” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Motion Picture Story (now known as Best Original Screenplay) and won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It has also been added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry, and was restored by the Museum of Modern Art. Francois Truffaut said, “Our New Wave would never have come into being, if it wasn’t for the young American Morris Engel who showed us the way with “Little Fugitive.” Also, as stated in my new film “Morris Engel: The Independent” there were several important documentary filmmakers such as Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker who were influenced by him, and who made their own cameras after seeing my father’s camera. The French filmmaker Jean Luc Godard also wanted to borrow my father’s camera.

Q: Do you have any memories of participating in "Mary and Morris Shaving," New York City, 1966?
A. My memories of the photo “Mary and Morris Shaving, NYC, 1966” are primarily from the photo. My mother had 500-watt lights in every room so she wouldn’t miss anything. However, she primarily shot everything candid, so I don’t have memories of being posed, or resenting having her constantly shooting. I love now having all the photos that I do have of my childhood.

Q: On a personal level, "Comic Book Readers," New York City, 1947, gives me a general feeling of nostalgia and a feeling for times gone by. Can you talk a bit about how other photos may evoke that emotional nostalgic response?
A. I think both of my parent’s photos evoke memories of the past because they were taken primarily in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. It brings back an era that people think of as golden, and when New York was a different place. Obviously, for me, I can only dream about what it was like, because I was born in the 60’s, but I love looking at all the photos to see how different parts of the city used to look like. In addition, much of the architecture was so wonderful, and it is a shame that so many buildings were torn down, that it is great to have memories of these landmarks from their photos.

Q: Are you planning any exhibits of your mother's work?
A. I work full-time as the archivist of my parent’s work, at the Orkin/Engel Film and Photo Archive so I’m continually trying to promote their work by arranging new shows, working on various projects, and planning new books. I have published several catalogs of their work on my own. The websites are a great way to learn and see more of their photographs. Go to The Ruth Orkin Photo Archive, and The Morris Engel Photo Archive.

The above Ruth Orkin photo, "Comic Book Readers," New York City (1947) appears at this blog with the written permission of Mary Engel. It is from the "Children" collection.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Howard Feller, actor/comic

I have known Howard Feller for over twenty years. What can I say about Howard? Plenty. He is one of the dearest and sweetest people I know. I met him for lunch on this Tuesday, and he spoke in a very direct and open manner about his comedy career.

He calls himself a "movie and comedy freak" who enjoyed listening to Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, and Robert Klein. He liked "old comedy." In about 1982, Howard took a comedy class with Mark Jacobs that was given on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and soon after he started doing clubs with open mic nights. He says he "looked weird" and on stage he played off that. Silver, the owner of the Improv, passed Howard in an audition during those early 80s. He did stand-up three or four times a week and he kept getting better. He began to get many opportunities and consistent work. He played in diners and places where he began to make money. At that time, comedy was "hot" and he got road work and Jersey gigs in late night spots.

He worked at the Boston Comedy Club and met Barry Katz. He worked in the Comedy Cellar and at Stand-up NY and these spots led to a "Caroline's Comedy Hour" on A & E and as he built credentials he got better spots and this led to an "MTV Half Hour" comedy show. And when the MTV "Jon Stewart Show" was looking for a "weird geeky guy" as a sidekick for Jon, Howard got the job. Jon sat at a bicycle bar and Howard sat in a tractor chair and the show became an off-beat talk show with a small but very devoted fan following. That original "Jon Stewart Show" ran for one year on MTV and it ran for another year in syndication throughout the country. It was a "work in progress," as Howard describes it.

Howard has appeared in several films. Penny Marshall gave Howard a line in "Awakenings" because Howard says he "looked crazy." Howard recently appeared on "30 Rock" as the super in Tina Fey's building and in a "Law and Order" episode he played a homeless guy who brings a dead guy into a check cashing place as part of some scam... which was based on a real NYC incident. Howard will be on Howard (Stern) TV in an episode of "Show in the Hall." And he is also in the upcoming Nia Vardalos film, "I Hate Valentine's Day." In that film, he plays a homeless guy who lives outside her building. He says he is always called to play "the homeless guy" and he has no idea why.

Howard recently filmed an NBC pilot called "off Duty" in which he plays a junkie. I am wondering if he plays a homeless junkie. And he is up for several other parts... in which he plays a homeless guy.

Howard invited me to visit him in his brand new apartment with "a great view of the Manhattan skyline." He told me it was a basement apartment. I am still wondering about that.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Robert Siegel, writer/director

This interview with Robert began on a Thursday evening at a Chelsea diner. And we concluded the interview the following day, on a muggy Friday Manhattan night in the same diner. So, this was my first two-part interview. I was excited and happy.

Robert was editor-in-chief of "The Onion" from 1996 to 2003... when it was in it's original phase as a Madison, Wisconsin publication. The editor of "The Onion" when Robert arrrived was Ben Karlin, who later left to join "The Daily Show" as executive producer. He was followed by David Javerbaum, who is still the executive producer of "The Onion" and he wrote the music for the Broadway show, "Crybaby."

In 2001, "The Onion" moved to new headquarters in New York City. And shortly thereafter Robert began writing "The Wrestler." Robert explained that the process of creating a film is a long one. It can sometimes take five years from "script to screen." But Robert knew from the beginning that Mickey Rourke was "ideal" for this film and he wrote "The Wrestler" with Mickey Rourke in mind. Robert knew he would be just perfect for this part. Robert wanted to create a compelling character and story. Yet, he realizes the story is both sad and emotional. And throughout, there are many scenes in the film that show the character's great and extreme loneliness with moments of so much sweetness.

The audience knows at the end of the film that "The Ram" will not last long after he makes a decision to go back into the ring. He has made a decision to die. It was the director's decision to end the film with a freeze frame... to perhaps leave the final moments without a closure.

I think there are huge emotional moments in "The Wrestler" and it was Robert Siegel from whose fingers this heartbreaking film began and... he indeed created the film which gave Mickey Rourke his "comeback." Robert was nominated for a WGA award in the category of "original screenplay" for the film.

We moved on to a discussion of "Big Fan," the film which Robert wrote and directed and which will premiere at BAM on June 19th as part of the Next Wave Festival. In the film, Patton Oswalt plays Paul Aufiero, a loner who is obsessed with the Giants and he spends much of his time calling in to a sports radio show. For this role, Patton Oswalt won the award for "Best Actor" at the Method Festival. Robert describes Paul as a "Marty" or "Rupert Pupkin"... and perhaps "Big Fan" is the "King of Comedy" of sports movies. I asked Robert if he personally knows any of these "obsessive nerds" and he said he based the character on his imagination. But we have all had experiences which make us lonely and we all share basic human emotions and it is those feelings which Robert hopes to bring to film. "Big Fan" will open on August 28th.

Well, another interview had ended. As darkness was falling, the sidewalks were still packed with people and the streets were crowded with busy traffic congestion. I started thinking as I began the walk home. People weave in and out of our lives.... but I have known Robert for several years, and tonight I continued to be impressed by Robert's sincerity, integrity, openness, and warmth.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Jerry, the "Marble Faun"

I was more than elated when Jerry Torre agreed to be interviewed for this blog. Don't you know who Jerry Torre is? He's featured in the great documentary, "Grey Gardens," by Albert and David Maysles. You've seen it, haven't you?

Jerry is who Little Edie Beale called the "Marble Faun," in that "artistic smash." I always loved Edie Beale. I never thought of her as an "acquired taste," as Big Edie describes her in the recent HBO film, "Grey Gardens." She seemed to be filled with excellent wit and humor and she had such a great spirit. She actually is one of the people I miss who I never met. And I was thrilled when Jerry Torre met me for a late lunch on this Friday afternoon. I recognized him immediately as he crossed the street.

Jerry found his way to East Hampton from Brooklyn one summer when he ran away from home and was looking for adventure. He became an assistant gardener for Mr. Gerald Geddes, and he had his own little room over the kitchen in that home. And when he was on his bicycle wandering around one day, he found Grey Gardens.

We started talking about the mansion, Grey Gardens. Grey Gardens was quite dilapidated and Jerry said raccoons would watch from the rafters, cats would jump all over the room, and cobwebs draped the staircase... and on rainy days water would seep into the house through cracks. Jerry says "Mrs. Beale was very comfortable with the untidy conditions of the house." He never questioned the conditions because he did not want to be impolite. But one day, when a kitten died it took some time to convince Mrs. Beale that the kitten needed to be buried.

Then I asked Jerry what the Beales did all day. Jerry said that Little Edie dedicated her life to her mother and she was always in the house. He told me they had no television and just a small radio. Jerry said they would sing, and Little Edie would recite poetry and read to her mother. She would entertain Big Edie with little costumes that she created and run in and out of her dressing area. And they challenged each other in great debates about everything and that kept them going because they bickered all through the day and night. "They were like lawyers." The topics included the Kennedy clan and how to get through the winter. They would discuss men, etiquette, and have endless discussions about the environment. They often discussed the social politics of their East Hampton town. They "stayed occupied with their minds." Little Edie was an interesting woman filled with ideas. She was a very "complete human being" and she very much wanted to express all of herself. Jerry told me that Little Edie would often sit in the "forgotten chair" when she wanted to escape from "the scene." It was red leather and in a garden surrounded by overgrowth in the back of the house.

Jerry had great concern for the Beales and he fell in love with them and felt a huge sense of responsibility for their safety. He explained that Big Edie used a Sterno (which was next to her bed) to prepare the corn, and he wanted to be called over every time the Sterno was used. He had great fear that somehow that dangerous Sterno would cause a fire. During the interview, the deep love that Jerry had for the Beales was always very apparent and revealed in his thoughtful and kind demeanor.

Jerry lost touch with Little Edie after Big Edie passed away. While Edie was a very strong woman, she very much missed her mother. Edie stayed to herself and lived for about two years alone in Grey Gardens until it was sold. I felt overwhelming sadness as Jerry spoke because I believe that Edie had to be very lonely during that time.

We then moved on to discuss what Jerry has been doing all these years since his appearance as the "Marble Faun" in the great documentary "Grey Gardens." Jerry explained he has kept to himself because he wanted to own the relationship with the Beales and keep it private. Only in the last few years has interest in him and his time in the house become mainstream and at first he was not sure he wanted to share his memories. This is a renewed "avalanche of interest" in what Jerry calls a magical time in his life. He said, "after all, it is 33 years old." He asked me if that made sense.

In the years that have passed Jerry has lived and experienced so much. He is now a sculptor at The Art Students League of New York and one of his awarded works is "Confetti."

Jerry did openly speak about and share his memories and feelings with me during this interview and I was very moved. I felt an almost overwhelming general nostalgia and a longing for a time gone by. I was overjoyed to meet Jerry and very happy that he allowed me a glimpse into those few years of his life.

We left the restaurant and we promised to stay in touch. Jerry, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Monday, May 4, 2009

Dana Parish, singer/songwriter

I met with Dana on a rainy Monday afternoon, and she arrived for the interview looking impeccable and gorgeous. Since Dana was a little girl, she has been fascinated with music. She grew up outside Philadelphia and as a young girl she listened to the music of Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and Regina Belle. She was 10 years old when she began singing lessons. She studied with the opera singer, Paul Adkins, from whom she received a great eclectic musical experience. She went on to the New England Conservatory of Music and then transferred to the Manhattan School of Music, from where she was graduated.

Dana is an accomplished songwriter and I asked about her inspirations. She explained that she listens to people's conversations and stories and draws from her own life and experiences. Her late night anxieties are layered and infused with her feelings about her personal loves, breakups, and agonies. The result is a message in music about togetherness, pain, and the joy of life. Her songs come from a very personal and private place. Dana explained that she takes time to live with her songs and because they are so personal they take some time to be revealed.

Dana has received a beautiful response from her fans. Her songs have helped them get through some of life's difficulties... and she feels very gratified when she can help listeners with her music. "Helping somebody is a beautiful thing," she feels.
The artists that Dana admires are Danny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Sheryl Crowe, Patty Griffen, and Damien Rice.

Dana's goals are to touch as many people as possible. She hopes to create timely music in songs which evolve from an artistic and organic path to reach a consciousness.

Dana's CD is called "Uncrushed." I adore and am moved by so many of the songs, but a personal favorite is "Let It Go By."
Dana's sound is pure and focused and grounded. And, like the artist... impeccable.

Thank-you, Dana, for sharing a part of the rainy Monday afternoon. Dana Parish on MySpace