Monday, August 24, 2009

HBO Documentary: In a Dream

It is difficult to classify Isaiah Zagar as an artist. A graduate of the Pratt Institute, he was the recipient of a NREA fellowship and a grant from the Pew Charitable Trust. He was even an artist-in-residence in Tianjin, China. However, his primary gallery is his South Philadelphia neighborhood, where his mosaics completely envelope several buildings in an obsessive style that suggests the work of a tormented outsider artist. Indeed, Zagar’s deep-seated emotional issues would erupt during the filming of In a Dream (trailer here), his son Jeremiah’s documentary about his artistic parents, now playing on HBO2.

Though director Zagar captures some uncomfortably revealing moments as they happened, the family has evidently made peace with the project, since they were in attendance Sunday afternoon for Dream’s special screening at the Brooklyn Museum. Presumably, they grown accustomed to the attention generated by the film, which was one of fifteen films to make the Academy’s 2008 shortlist for best documentary.

As we meet Zagar the artist, he certainly appears eccentric and self-absorbed, yet it seems he was a reasonably supportive father and loving husband. Yet, after some probing by his son, the elder Zagar discloses some disturbing events in his life, including prolonged episodes of sexual molestation as a youth, which would eventually inspire the fish motifs in his art.

Unfortunately, Isaiah Zagar does not always come across as a sympathetic figure, choosing the worst possible time to admit his infidelity. As a result, his formerly comfortable domestic life comes crashing down around him. In fact, there is a fair amount of uncertainty in Dream not just regarding the future of the Zagars’ marriage, but whether the artist’s delicate mental health can survive the guilt and strain caused by his confession.

Like Surfwise, Doug Pray’s documentary examination of the unconventional Paskowitz family, Dream reveals the dark side of Bohemian living. Still, the Zagars clearly offered their children a much more conventionally structured environment. In fact, the one who suffers most from Isaiah Zagar’s self-indulgent impulses is arguably the artist himself.

As filmed by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, Zagar’s mosaics become truly striking explosions of colors and bizarre imagery. With animated sequences (designed by Cassidy Gearhart and Yussef Cole) incorporating Zagar’s graphic figures, Dream has a trippy, hallucinatory visual style, heightened by the alternative-ambient soundtrack provided by Kelli Scarr and The Books.

Dream encompasses some timeless themes, including family, fidelity, art, and madness. It is particularly notable for showing the consequences of the Zagar patriarch’s bad decisions, rather than blindly venerating his bohemian lifestyle. It plays again on HBO2 tonight (8/24) and Friday (8/28), and will be available on HBO OnDemand through September 13th.