Who is That Masked Man?

Louis Schwadron, the 28-year-old actor, writer, and musician—he used to play French Horn in the robe-wearing choral band the Polyphonic Spree—imagines himself an arty Peter Parker, bringing social justice to Metropolis with the help of an alter ego and a … Read More

By / January 30, 2007
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Louis Schwadron, the 28-year-old actor, writer, and musician—he used to play French Horn in the robe-wearing choral band the Polyphonic Spree—imagines himself an arty Peter Parker, bringing social justice to Metropolis with the help of an alter ego and a latex mask. Schwadron’s heroic double is Rabbi Yoni Goldfarb, the wrinkled, Fu Manchu-sporting host of Jewcy's new "Two-Minute Mitzvah" series of online videos, in which he performs good deeds with menschy abandon. The Internet can be a wild, amoral place; with Rabbi Goldfarb, Schwadron hopes to inject some altruism and kindness into the wilderness. The rabbi’s beneficent aphorisms—“No matter what pair of slacks you’re wearin’, there’s always a pocket of time to make nice in da woirld” —recall NBC’s “The More You Know” public service announcements as narrated by Mel Brooks. Schwadron started out a classical musician, training at Juilliard, but he’s played with as many rock bands as orchestras—everyone from Yo-Yo Ma to David Bowie. He arranged some of the music for John Cameron Mitchell’s movie Shortbus and performed stand-up comedy, but his biggest theatrical endeavor to date has been his own memorial service, Funeral, staged at the Ars Nova theater. Of course, that very stage happens to share an office (and an owner) with Jewcy, and as soon as we saw Rabbi Goldfarb eulogizing his creator, we decided to reserve a little corner of the internet just for him. Who is Rabbi Goldfarb? Where did he come from? He’s the voice of my conscience. Every person has their inner rabbi figure or preacher figure or father figure or grandfather figure—their inner voice of reason. I just gave mine a mask and an outfit and a voice and filmed him and now he’s on the internet. So now he can be the conscience for other people as well? Yes, or at least enter into their subconscious while they’re looking at people killing each other on YouTube. In other words, you really want to increase the number of mitzvot in the world—you’re not joking around. There’s so much negativity online. I like things that make you think. I don’t consider myself a comedian—just an artist working in forms that entertain. I’m not trying to be obscure or even exclusively Jewish. I want to use familiar characteristics to reach a wide audience. There are a lot of people who know the word mitzvah, like from Bar Mitzvah—non-Jews, Jews even—but who don’t connect it with an act of kindness or an unselfish act. So I thought, how can I use that little span of time to get people to do something joyful? So Rabbi Goldfarb is a mash-up of all the rabbis you know? Has your inner voice of reason always sounded like him? He’s an amalgam of all the loving and pushy Jews I’ve known in my life. I hunt for masks wherever I can. I don’t even remember where I found that one, but I fell in love with it right away. I’ve been doing plays with masks for a long time, and I just connected that voice and that character with that mask. Now, with the video and the play, he’s turning into a more developed person. But you know, something happens when you put on a mask. What happens when you put on a mask? Well, what happens when you put on a mask? When is the last time you’ve worn a mask? I guess as a teenager, I was a peacock for Halloween once, so I had this big Venetian-style bird mask. And I had a friend in college who used to wear a ski mask in the cold, just to freak people out. Oh, like a Williamsburg thing? I think that when you put on a mask, everything changes. We’re really visual, so what you see is what you believe. People, when they see themselves in another form, allow their brains to transform, so you can inhabit another person. It’s s
till you, but it’s almost like being in a dream. Actors talk about trying to shed the shell of who they are and become another person. When you put a mask on someone, when you add the visual, you see that amazing transformation. There’s a sense of play, a sense of enjoyment. It’s so funny—I really do think masks can save the world. Actually it depends on the mask. You take something like Slipknot— you know that band? —I’m not sure about those masks. But I guess it’s a goth thing, where dressing up allows you to be yourself. So you can be yourself by being someone else? That’s not so far off for me. I’m interested in the way it makes you feel — you can be in the moment but still be someone else. Our culture usually accepts people who want to be someone else, even, to a certain extent, transsexuals, but if you actually wear a mask in public, it sends a really weird message. In the video, you were wearing the mask in the subway. Did you get a lot of weird looks? Yeah, I mean, wouldn’t you look at me? But people in New York are used to things like that, because once upon a time, not so long ago, people used to come here to be artists. Our culture isn’t open to masks the way Italian culture is, with carnival, or Mexican culture, with the Día de los Muertos. Almost every country besides America has public holidays other than Halloween where people come together, wear costumes, let go and become these other people. It’s very un-American. You bought the mask somewhere? Did you alter it? Not so much. I sewed a yarmulke on it. But maybe I should stop telling you my secrets, to preserve the mystery. Who is that masked man? There’s your title. And the answer can be “We really still don’t know.” The whole reason I like the arts is because of the air of mystery. You make music and people are like “Who is that band?” but really they should be thinking about the music.
I was in this band—the Polyphonic Spree—and all people wanted to know was “Are you really a cult? You look like a cult.” And I was like, does it matter? At the end of the day, it’s a show. It’s art. The beautiful elements of the book you read are in the book, not the writer. In a movie it’s the images and the characters, not the actors themselves. As a separate person from you, does Rabbi Goldfarb have a background? Did you make up a life for him? It’s developing. But my characters all extensions of me, just in terms of how they think. By the way, he might not be in every video, though he’ll always be the host figure. We’ll see. That’s what’s exciting about starting a series. In the video, why do you show Polaroid stills instead of just filming the mitzvah? I think still images are more beautiful than moving images. Or at least equally beautiful. Media at this point is so hyper-stylized and graphics-based that I wanted this to look like you could do it yourself. That’s the upside of YouTube. This whole culture of short-attention-span video art is made by and for young people, people that aren’t working full-time in the industry doing commercial post-production. I very much wanted to keep it in that do-it-yourself aesthetic. But I also just think that still images have more character. It forces you to look one step closer. There’s a glaze that happens when you look at TV, or any kind of documentary footage. Then again, you’re still looking at a moving image when you look at a still image on a computer screen—- But it’s still frozen in time. Yes. And there’s just something cute about a Polaroid. We showed the subway musician his picture right after we took it, and it made him happy. We made him the spotlight of the day. So it is a mitzvah.

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