May the Schwartz be with you

I’d just met the man a scant five minutes earlier, posed a few of the usual, rudimentary let’s-get-comfortable-shall-we questions and now, suddenly, prompted by the obligatory what-brought-you-to-Detroit query, Gary Schwartz has launched himself out of the comfy chair in his living room, singing--almost--the praises of the city that’s been his home for almost 10 years.

"The quality of our lives went up exponentially when we moved here from LA," he gushes. "The idea of buying a house--that is beyond imagination in LA! And the level of warmth, closeness, connection, community, all the big C’s that we have here? LA never had any of that! If I tried to talk to my next door neighbors at the LA apartment where I lived for 16 years, I was violating a code of personal space."

That all changed with the move Schwartz, a film-maker and animator, and his wife Cathy, an urban farmer, made in 2003 to their funky 100-year-old house in the Woodbridge Historic Neighborhood, just a few blocks from the heart of downtown.

"Now we have neighbors who actually have our keys!" Schwartz exults (editor's note: yes, exults. This is a most accurate description of what Gary does). "I can actually ask them to let me in my house! That sure never happened in LA!"

They also have a sweet dog named Barney, whom Schwartz describes as a "a purebred Golden Onion Head," who barks ferociously at anyone who approaches the house, but--Schwartz assures--will not only quiet down, but start nuzzling as soon as the intruder pets him. 

"(He's) 45 pounds of melt your heart," Schwartz says with a grin, clearly not concerned about Barney’s deficiencies as a watchdog.

Schwartz is 54, a native of New Jersey who’s retained the distinctive accent. As for a description of his looks and demeanor, let’s just say the photo on his website bears not only a striking resemblance to Woody Allen--the big glasses sticking out from under a goofy hat--but the two could have been separated at birth. And as far as leaving LA goes, just like Allen’s character in his classic film Annie Hall, Schwartz ultimately realized he had to get out of there, because as the saying goes, there truly is no "there" there.

"It’s not a good place to grow older, you know?" he says. 

I do know. Exactly. I spent just over 20 years there myself, a native New Yorker who felt like the proverbial fish out of water virtually the whole time, never forgetting the words of an old friend--and fellow New Yorker--who told me he was bolting back to the east coast a short time after I arrived. Why, I asked?

"Because I don’t want to die in LA," he replied, with no hesitation. 

But Schwartz hastens to add his 24 years in that city were productive and far from disastrous. He even earned an Oscar nomination in 1982 for his animated short, Animus.

But then it just became too much--as it invariably does for anyone who isn’t born there, and therefore lacks in their DNA whatever is the requisite for appreciating whatever "there" is.

"A 20-minute drive had became 90," he says. "It became a parking lot. It got very expensive, crowded, polluted, competitive and actually, it got very lonely. The more people there, the lonelier it got. Because there’s less of a sense of community. People were there to start their careers and to be famous, to drop their old personas and create a new one."

Schwartz was offered a position as a professor at the College for Creative Studies. He was brought in to start an animation program, which he did.

He was fired after six years but he just kept forging ahead, doing his films--"I can make one a day," he says, "been doing it for 20-25 years"--and discovering that Detroit has allowed him to thrive in a way LA never did.

"As an artist I can do anything here," he says. "In LA I couldn’t do that because it’s too expensive. Here, your imagination is really your only limitation. 

"I make more films now than I used to make," he says, "because I can afford to do them here. And I show the films all over the world because I do animation workshops everywhere."

On this day, Schwartz is working on a project involving the Paralympics this summer in London, commissioned by the British government.

"They hired me to teach animation online at 10 different schools around the world," he says. "The majority of the students have physical, mental and emotional disabilities. They’re going to provide scenes for a film called 'Driving Inspiration' and it’s going to become an 8-minute short that will celebrate the values of the Paralympics."

It’s obviously a noble and worthy project, but Schwartz didn’t immediately accept the offer.

"I couldn’t comprehend the idea of teaching anything online," he says. "My brain couldn’t imagine it. Then they told me I’d be paid 200 pounds for each one-hour class. So I did some quick math."

Schwartz pauses here, chuckling.

"I figured an hour class for $350," he says, "and I can do it in my underwear! So I said yes."

Another pause here, as the punch line hovers: "For class, I look very presentable from the waist up."

That Schwartz is happily functioning at all, never mind teaching and indefatigably producing his work, is a minor miracle in itself. 

"I’ve had MS since 1979," he says. "I've been blind, been in a wheelchair, been paralyzed. I’ve gone through the whole laundry list, over the years. I’ve overcome them all."

And how, the next question begs, does one simply "overcome" paralysis or blindness?

"Doctors tell me, 'you have a strong constitution, Gary,'" he blithely replies. "That’s the only explanation I’ve ever heard."

But Schwartz does admit to a regular regimen he says might have a positive affect on his affliction.

"For the past 30 years," he says, "I take Oil of Evening Primrose every day. You can get it at any health food store. That’s all I take. It helps the synapses of the brain work better. I won’t take the pharmacological things. The side effects are hideous beyond imagination. I won’t do the corporate thing."

An outlook which also applies when it comes to showing off his adopted city.

"Detroit needs boosters," he says, "so I do something called the Post-Industrial Apocalyptic Landscape Tour."

It’s a bit off the track--shocking, huh?--focusing on some of Detroit’s landmarks--"Belle Isle, the Packard plant and Lafayette Coney Island," Schwartz says--and avoiding all that in his view suggests even a hint of corporate influence. That means anything having to do with the city’s "Evil Big Three"--music, alcohol and sports.

Many of those who take the tour are not only foreigners and complete strangers, but also Schwartz's house guests.

"We’ve been members of for years," he says, "so we have people from all over the world staying with us. Then when we go to Europe, we take what I call the Payback Tour."

In June, Gary and Cathy were off to London for some "payback" and to finish and deliver the short on the Paralympics. For now, there are other films to work on, festivals to attend and, of course, tours to take and wry observations to make.

So long, Gary, it’s been a pleasure to meet you.

"You too," he replies as Barney rubs against my leg, whimpering, "and may the Schwartz be with you."

Tom Murray is a freelance writer and filmmaker whose 2010 documentary Dad's in Heaven with Nixon, about his autistic younger brother, has been shown on Showtime and elsewhere. After escaping from Los Angeles he settled in suburban Detroit. 
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