If last year’s documentary landscape was a warzone, collectively building and sustaining a massive interrogation of Bush’s War on Terror generally and the Iraq War specifically, this year’s crop of documentaries covers a somewhat more varied field of ideas. To be sure, many of these were polemical in intent, illuminating pressing issues from water rights to Hurricane Katrina. But in this election year, politics belonged on television--or better yet, on the internet. Broadly speaking, documentary film showed a more inward turn, with a strong emphasis on portraits of artists, especially those who are morally equivocal, but no less visionary white men. Man on Wire, Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, The Windmill Movie, Scott Walker: 30th Century Man, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, Dreams With Sharp Teeth, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, and, to a certain extent, Surfwise: all of these were concerned with the divisive nature of the artist-mystic, whose words and works ring with wisdom even as his actions are selfish, his behavior boorish or infantile, his relationship to those around him antagonistic or simply icy. Of course, this conflicted nature is precisely what makes these figures interesting, charming, and worthy of documenting in the first place—though it often also makes them impenetrable (like Hunter Thompson or Philippe Petit) or flat-out annoying (like the Dick Rogers of The Windmill Movie or the Harlan Ellison of Dreams with Sharp Teeth).
I enjoyed all of these films for all of these reasons – their insights and aggravations – but these films are really hagiographic projects. They're leavened with an appropriate amount of criticism, yes, but not enough to risk angering their subjects, losing access, or failing to honor their legacy. Few reach beyond this narrowness of purview, this simple acceptance of the myth of the white male artist, and thus none of these were nearly as good as Jeremiah Zagar’s first feature, In a Dream. Like the aforementioned, Zagar’s film is also about an old white artist, absorbing and self-absorbed in equal measures. But this artist is also the filmmaker’s father: Isaiah Zagar, a mosaic artist whose work primarily adorns the interiors and exteriors of buildings around South Street, Philadelphia. According to Zagar, his life’s work is to make “the city of Philadelphia PA USA into a labyrinthine mosaic museum that incorporates all my varied knowledge and skills”—a hubristic-sounding endeavor, indeed, but one that has a lot to say about the integration of art and life.
Mercurial and massive in scale, Zagar’s work bears a good deal of resemblance to that of the Viennese artist-architect Hundertwasser, with its electric palette, its links to various folk arts from around the world, and its moratorium on the straight line. In the late 1960s, Zagar and his wife Julia began buying derelict buildings, which Isaiah would cover in tile, paint, words, images, mirrors, and found objects, and which they would then rent out. (Appropriately enough, I first saw this film in the summer program of New York’s Rooftop Films, itself an epic project of repurposing urban space for art and culture.) And true to Zagar’s art-life project – “to be alive in the work, to impregnate the work with my life” – these massive mosaics serve to tell the story of his life and that of his family, a rich narrative that Jeremiah’s film lovingly documents in its first half with a barrage of archival material, sketches, film, and photographs organized in animated sequences worthy of the floridity of Isaiah’s work. (Animation in documentaries has become somewhat overused and a little corny, but its incorporation here works beautifully, as it does in Waltz with Bashir in a completely different context.) Isaiah candidly discusses hard times – sexual abuse in his youth, a mental breakdown and suicide attempt – but the emphasis soon shifts to the epic narrative of his love for Julia and the birth of their sons, Zeke and Jeremiah.
This is where most documentaries end—and where In a Dream begins. Even the film’s title alludes to this: as Julia notes, “For years, we were living in a dream,” and awakening from this dream, this solipsistic vision of the artist’s wholeness and mastery of his world is a process that takes up the film’s devastating second half. With sons grown up and away from the family circle, Isaiah refocusing his art on himself, commences an affair with an assistant, and progressively isolates himself, his bravado inflating to monstrous, magus-like proportions before deflating into a kind of physical and emotional paralysis. With the intricate textures and mounting tension of the Books' musical score, it’s an astonishing and cruel metamorphosis to watch, but it’s also one of the most intimate portraits of depression I’ve ever seen on film and one of the great stories of mid-life crisis. This would seem to minimize the film’s effects somewhat, but In a Dream’s great strength is its often uncomfortable intimacy, its commitment not only to the ideal of Isaiah the artist but also the reality of Isaiah the father and husband.
At one point, Isaiah describes his art in typically dyonisian terms, yelling and bashing a table in front of him, seeking “mysterium tremendum in everything … in EVERYTHING!” But as Isaiah’s isolation and megalomania increases, sympathetically narrated and clarified by Julia in interviews and voiceover, we acutely understand the strange ironies of artistic production: the search for truth and beauty, for fearful otherness, in the world all too often becomes an insular search within, and this results in the artist’s totalizing imposition of his vision onto the world around him. For this reason, Julia’s presence in the film, and her endless, wise, and even-handed appraisal of her and her husband’s lives and emotional wellbeing, provides the crucial feminine counterweight to Isaiah’s massive phallic undertaking. And the resulting film is at once more tender and more brutal than others of its kind, one that lionizes Isaiah’s continuing project even as it questions its evolving role in his life. Indeed, “evolving” is the key word here, for where most films are content to solidify their subjects' careers into rounded, manageable, and often posthumous narratives, In a Dream puts forward Zagar’s career as something epic but awkward; sometimes too much, sometimes not enough; neverending and perpetually beginning. Of course, unlike Arthur Russell and Dick Rogers, Isaiah Zagar has the great benefit of not being dead and so his film can end on a note of continuation, not of finality or posterity. But even so, what the film offers is a portrait of art as lived experience and, like Zagar’s own project, a portrait of the world as a work of art to be lived in.