Review by David H. Anthony listen above or read below.
The documentary In A Dream by Jeremiah Zagar has all the virtues of intimacy. It is affectionate without being overly sentimental and pulls few punches in its unfolding.
Zagar’s subject is his artist father, Isaiah and mother Julia and their at times tortured relationship. Isaiah crafts brilliant mosaics. His work has been used to refurbish run down and/or abandoned parts of Philadelphia for the three decades covered in the film. It would not be an exaggeration to state that Isaiah’s art bears marks of genius, nor would it be inaccurate to also say that the film details the darker side of his gifts and the price paid by his family as he pursued his own particular expressive modes.
Shot in 2008 In A Dream is an assemblage of vintage footage dating back to the seventies, using a variety of tools and techniques. It mixes live action, period stills and moving pictures with animation to create an often astonishing array of effects, relying chiefly upon the imaginations of the principals and the vivid vistas that take shape through the creative acumen of Isaiah with the cooperative foresight of Julia.
This is not yet another tragic trope of genius gone awry, but it dares not dodge the vexing matter of how artistic intelligence may coexist with, perhaps even depend upon a degree of detachment from rationality, even as ratiocination occurs. Stated simply, an enduring theme in the lives of Isaiah, Julia and their progeny is the lifelong battle Isaiah wages with mental illness, punctuating or puncturing his productivity. Isaiah’s art becomes the vehicle through which he both engages and retreats from existence. In it he chronicles his story but also increases his isolation.
There are other parts of In A Dream that are better experienced as a viewer than recounted in a space such as this one. Because the chronological arc of the mature lives portrayed here (and thankfully allowed to speak their own truths) temporally roughly paralleled my own, there were moments when I felt close to the spouses as members of a cohort who endured several common cultural and social milestones.
This is no tale of sweetness and light. The nature of the couple’s commitment is tested, leading to complex and compelling crises of conscience as the two wrestle with whether collaboration can best be accomplished with or without cohabitation. Speaking to a steadicam breaks down barriers as Julia and Isaiah say what is on their mind and in their heart. Isaiah’s incandescent, incendiary art is a constant.