Judge Bill Gibron was mesmerized by this beautiful, broken look at one artist's life.
Love is a Work of Art
Mosaic maker Isaiah Zagar had it all. For five decades, he's had the relative free reign to transform derelict buildings in his hometown of Philadelphia into amazing works of architectural art. He's had a wife (Julia) who adores him, two sons (Ezekiel and Jeremiah) who take after his clear creative acumen and a growing appreciation from both society and the critical community. His life appeared to be a happy go lucky ritual of grueling work by day and familial fulfillment at night. So why did he have to go and mess it all up? Why did he have to give into the longings that, at his advanced age, should have been relegated to the nostalgic days of a misspent youth?
In his fascinating documentary, In a Dream, youngest Zagar boy Jeremiah is determined to discover what makes his sometimes distant dad tick. Following him around with a camera, the beginnings of a biography emerge. But then things take a strange, almost surreal turn. Brother Zeke separates from his wife of 10 years, and the pain causes him to return home, grow isolated, and disappear into drug addiction. Then, one day, out of the blue, Isaiah announces that he's having an affair with his assistant. The family that withstood mood swings, hospitalizations, and an initial disinterest in the now heralded mosaics suddenly shifts from eccentric to everyday, the pain of rehab and martial discord dissolving years of pleasant memories.
But something about the Zagars will endure, and as In a Dream deepens, the means of survival becomes clear. Everyone here has issues. Isaiah matter of factly discusses how an older man taught him the joys of fishing—and the confusion of molestation. Later, Julia can't fathom why, on the day she was supposed to visit Zeke in the hospital, her husband would drop his random bombshell of infidelity. Through insanity and institutionalization, the radical tone of the '60s and the rarified appreciation of the '90s, the Zagars tend to mirror their times. When things were tumultuous, out of control, and wildly experimental, so were they. When society swung toward a more conservative bent, their muse was reconfigured as idiosyncratic urban renewal.
And what amazing works they are. Son Jeremiah clearly appreciates what his dad has built up over all these years, and much of In a Dream's running time is taken up with long, languishing looks at these vast visions. Details include sexual in-jokes, family portraits, shards of reflective mirror, and wholly random junk. When looked at on a larger scale, we see cosmic considerations, the whole of mankind, and the intimacies of one man's flawed persona made public. The fact that, at near 70, he still puts in the endless hours to realize his lofty ambitions is matched only by the boundless imagination his work demonstrates. It's also clear why the Zagars threaten to unravel so often—in their lives, Isaiah's efforts are everything.
Yet this is not a portrait of a man disassociated from reality. Even when we learn of sanatorium stays, it's depression, not imaginary pixies, which populate his mind space. No, all Isaiah wants to do is create. It's so obvious that when Julia mandates he leave post-betrayal, he's unable to do much of anything. He becomes inert. Throughout the film, we hear his family discuss the need to keep moving forward, to forget the past, put it behind, and find the doorway into a new and more productive future. While In a Dream argues that this may be the reason each family crisis goes megaton nuclear, it also exposes the far too comfortable reliance on the past to explain present problems. Like the sexual abuse he experienced as a boy, Isaiah processes the experience and then moves on.
Thanks to some amazing archival material (all of the Zagars chronicled the family for many years) and a little bit of filmmaking as fate, In a Dream blooms and then blossoms. We are staggered by the scope of Isaiah's pieces, some encompassing entire buildings. We are curious about money and how it's made (a gallery is mentioned, but that's it). Some stories are left unfinished (Zeke seems on the road to recovery, but we never learn where it eventually leads) and there's an almost cliché kind of closure at the end, something suggesting that, when people find their soulmate, it's almost impossible to shake the connection.
As part of this DVD presentation, we are treated to a bevy of interesting bonus features. They include three short films, deleted scenes, a music video, and an alternative ending. Like the oversized works that form his reputation, each piece of added content clarifies our understanding of the Zagar family and its perplexed patriarch. As for technical specifications, the transfer is treated with great care. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image collects all the footage variables—digital, home movies, film, video—and turns them into something solid. The picture is polished, colorful, and wonderfully evocative. On the sound side of things, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 does a fantastic job with the internal microphone aspect of the recording. Voices are clear and ambient elements never overwhelm.
It's almost impossible to deny the power of people who pour their heart and humanity into every waking hour and each expression of imagination. For all his flaws—and In a Dream hints at too many to handle in 77 minutes—Isaiah Zagar stands as a shining example of one man constantly fighting to fulfill his own vision of the world he wants to live in. Not just the clever combinations of broken tiles, sketched symbols, life stories, and colored grout. It's the way he sees his wife, his children, his choices, and the inevitable fall out that comes from it all. In a Dream may suggest where the Zagars spend most of their time. But in the case of any artist (and those within his sphere of influence), everything is reveries. There's no need to be asleep, or awake. That's just the way it is.
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