The Beauty of Disaster
By JANET STILSON
New York City has a way of offering up little portals into fringe worlds that don’t seem like they’re worth a second glance – unless you stop, back up and look again.
That’s what happened to me several years ago, when I became intensely curious about the spiritual readers running storefront joints on every other street corner in the city. I was also drawn to the more sophisticated businesses catering to the needs of people just dying to know what the future holds, which are tucked away on the upper floors of choicer apartment real estate.
At first I focused on the storefront operations, with signs in the windows for $5 palm readings. (“Special discount for David Letterman Show ticket holders!” read one such sign.) The main room in one Greenwich Village shop featured a Chow dog padding around like a mafia king and a mannequin in a Bob Macky-styled, sparkly evening gown. She had one stiletto-heeled shoe missing. I later learned the store was connected to another shop on Coney Island that was equally eccentric.
Over the course of several evenings, equipped with a tiny recorder in my purse, I had my fortune read by ladies in several small shops. They intoned a series of predictions about my future that seemed to spill from their lips like poems. Over time, I saw the pattern in their words, as if they’d all inherited the lines from fortunetelling forbearers. As I listened to my recordings back in my Greenwich Village apartment, the predictions seemed like old plays running in multiple tiny theaters all over New York.
Every fortuneteller I visited seemed fairly harmless. Not everyone agrees with me, but in my view the storefront ladies make a living by doling out advice and calming the fears of neurotic New Yorkers – low-cost therapists with a theatrical bent. I learned that Romany Gypsies ran many of the shops. They’re a fiercely independent society of people with a fascinating and somewhat troubled history – people I’ve come to admire.
As with every profession, I knew fortunetelling had to contain some really “bad apples.” So I visited a New York police detective who had studied fortuneteller scams, and I found a special instructional video created for officers to help them understand how fortunetelling swindles worked.
On the flip side, I received a much more positive and at times quite comical impression of Romany Gypsies from sociologists who studied their culture. And I came to conclude that while I wanted to write about fortunetellers, I was better off making the characters in my film a part of mainstream America, rather than Gypsies.
Instead of writing a piece of investigative journalism, or producing a documentary, I let all that I’d learned stew around in my imagination. And out of it came the black-edged romantic comedy that is The Beauty of Disaster.
First, I wrote a feature film, which has been short-listed by a few international film screenwriting competitions and was optioned for a time. Then I wrote and produced a short film with a very talented, resourceful cast and crew, which is based on the feature. The short is a “calling card” for longer projects in the future, like the feature and a video series.
Within the story, I’ve very deliberately straddled the fence between one main character who is truly psychic, and one who is a fortunetelling hustler. As Nicole Gomez Fisher writes in her "Director's Statement" on this site, sisterhood also is a major theme in the film, and one that's very close to my heart.
Is anyone truly gifted with special powers? That’s for each person to decide. Instead I focus on what seems to be a simple truth: with all the catastrophes around us in the world – and all our personal preoccupations and frustrations – perhaps one of the things we need most is a little magical, humorous storytelling in our lives.