In a Dream
A fascinating portrait of an artist and adulterer
Reviewed by Michael King, Fri., Oct. 23, 2009
In A DreamIndiePix, $26.95
Isaiah Zagar is a great American artist.
That ineluctable and important realization gets somewhat obscured in In a Dream, his son Jeremiah's documentary study of Isaiah and Julia, Isaiah's wife and partner of many years. As Jeremiah, who began filming when he was a 19-year-old college student, put it, "What started as an exploration of my father's life has exposed the secrets of our entire family." The film is a vivid, engrossing, and touching study of Isaiah and his work – primarily the massive series of whole-building Philadelphia murals best known by its masterpiece, the Magic Gardens of South Street – but in midstream it swerves abruptly into family melodrama. Isaiah confesses to adultery just as the family is to retrieve Jeremiah's elder brother, Ezekiel, from drug rehab.
The uncertain outcome of that crisis becomes the narrative arc of the film, lending it much emotional resonance even while it threatens to overwhelm the exploration of the extraordinary lifetime achievement of Isaiah's art. That never quite happens – the invention, color, detail, and simply massive presence of the murals burst through almost every frame, nearly matched by the sheer energy of Julia and Isaiah as oversized characters in their own lifetime collaboration. (I was lucky enough to visit the site and meet both of them a couple of years ago; that gift-vision of art heroically embedded in ordinary life has become a persistent inspiration.)
In a Dream has already won several awards, including the 2008 South by Southwest Emerging Visions Award, and garnered HBO showings as well as a theatrical release. The DVD features a few deleted scenes and some intriguing earlier footage about Isaiah.
The soundtrack – anchored by the Books and Kelli Scarr – enhances the emotionally attentive mood of the film's very personal narrative. Oddly enough, that tone may even more reflect the expressionism of the young filmmaker, who abruptly discovered the inner life of his remarkable parents, than it does Isaiah's polymorphous art. "My parents are back together, and my brother is recovering with the help of his fiancée and their infant son," said Jeremiah. "We know now how imperfect we really are, but also how much we need and love each other." As much as the rest of us need the life-affirming energies of Isaiah Zagar's art.