Friday, July 3, 2009

In a Dream

"Love is a work of art," says the poster of In a Dream. For artist Isaiah Zagar, this is literally the case, for better or for worse. Written and directed by his son Jeremiah Zagar, who makes only a second-long appearance in the entire film, this documentary exposes the life of a troubled artist losing his grip on the world.

On a second re-reading, this sounds a little cliche. Even a troubled artist has moments of pure happiness and years of "living in a dream." Some things he says sound truer, holistically, than the texts of philosophers. His trouble seems to lie more in associations. In the first few seconds of the film, Jeremiah asks his father, just at the beginning of his interview, if he wants a glass of water. "No," Isaiah calmly responds, "I think I'll make a boiled egg."

The film is a portrait of the life of this artist, who, with his (unbelievably) supportive wife Julia, buys derelict buildings in south Philadelphia and transforms them into shining mosaics, nearly Gaudi-esque but even more personal. Isaiah covers the buildings roof-to-floor with found objects, color, paint, bits of stone and glass... all chronicling his own wife. He is endlessly hardworking to the point of insanity, working over 10-hour long days tirelessly putting glass side by side and painting around it. Yet every single wall is a self-portrait; floor to ceiling is covered in cartoonish portraits of Julia and himself, nude, clasping hands and smiling. Elsewhere are pictures of even Jeremiah (the filmmaker) and Ezekiel, the troubled and drug-abusing eldest son.

To a judgmental viewer this might be simply a movie "about a buncha hippies," but this is entirely incorrect. Their lives are as complicated and rooted in society as any other. Even the nearly impervious relationship between Julia and Isaiah is put to test when Isaiah begins to have an affair with his assistant Elizabeth. This is not a film about endings or beginnings but a portrait of a brilliant, creative, yet highly bruised artist, but without any sense of pity or glorification.

This neutral stance is aided by the cinematography, highly technical and brilliant, full of difficult zooms and alterations with camera lenses. Nearly half of the movie must be panoramic sweeps of the artwork, just a camera moving in and out of a structure made by Isaiah Zagar. There are also numerous animated sections, where Isaiah's art begins to move and mimics, in movements, the words he is saying, a common but very difficult animation technique (see Frida, the excellent movie starting Salma Hayek). My favorite thing besides this artwork is the score, made entirely by the Books (plus my personal favorite Explosions in the Sky song in the last segment!). The perfect complement to so reflective and artistic a film, the Books create a simple and melodic vibe using nothing but a cello, guitar, and synthesizer.

Jeremiah Zagar divided the film into three parts, a classic division that gives a largely winding and complex narrative great structure. This profile of Isaiah Zagar, coupled with gorgeous editing, give the film a half-surrealist, half-folk artsy feel, an American lovechild of Frida Kahlo and Antonin Gaudi. All in all, fascinating.

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