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'Dream' Drama

April 2, 2009 By:
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Jeremiah Zagar sets his sights on the life story of his dad.

The Moses of mosaics, with South Street his Sinai, Isaiah Zagar, zigging while other artists zag, has also broken a commandment or two.

No burning bushes to bemoan, but a number of burned bridges by an artist whose creativity has also cratered his own life, beset by beauties and beasts, and brushes with the bathetic, as well as greatness.

All of which suffuses his son's moving movie -- and reverie of remembrances -- "In a Dream," a commanding and iconic inquest into the heart and art of his famously familiar father, whose mosaics molt and meld Philadelphia history from every shingle and roof from which they hang.

"In a way," says son Jeremiah, "Philadelphia has always been his Promised Land."

And he lives up to his own promise as fine filmmaker in this stunning work, already the recipient of a cavalcade of acclaim and applause, as well as festival awards -- and seven years in the making.

But then, Joseph of the technicolor dreamcoat cachet and his father famously had their own seven years of a story to tell, too. But for Jeremiah, these are the years of plenty -- and he's getting much attention now: The winner of last year's Philadelphia Film Festival "Jury Award," as well as "Audience Award" from the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, and a handful of other high-fives, "In a Dream" and Jeremiah were saluted by the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival as part of its "New Filmmakers Weekend."

And now "Dream" will unfold locally at the Ritz at the Bourse on April 17.

It is all quite a dream of a dramatic accomplishment for the 27-year-old artistic archivist of memory and mission.

A colorful splash of a story about the Zagar family -- mom Julia runs the Eye's Gallery on South Street; brother Zeke a musical instrument shop around the corner -- this is far from a domesticated and docile documentary. It is as wild and wonderfully wide-angled as the jagged glass and broken fixtures that Isaiah affixes to buildings that reflect his own jumbo jigsaw of a life.

But just as a viewer gets a fix on the film, the frame explodes to expel secrets and lies that would have made Isaiah's nomadic neighbor Moses tongue-tied.

Pass the popcorn; this portrait of an artist as a young man/aging hippie -- would make Dorian Gray ashen. With almost off-handed revelations of sexual abuse as a youngster, and a devastating drift of thought that reveals unfaithfulness to his wife, Isaiah points to himself as a moving, breathing pointillist composition -- disparate dots of anecdotes connecting into a picture of troubled contentment, unhappy uninhibitedness.

Like many of the colors refracted from the artist's broken glass of mirrors/mosaics, "In a Dream" is brilliantly blinding, distractedly and disturbingly surreal. It is Gaudi at full gallop: No mere movie montage as homage, it is a work of art abstracted from a son who eschews the title of artist for that of storyteller.

And he's got some story to tell. Making his father the focus of his first feature-length movie necessitated a lens ground into shape not from glass but from memory and emotion, with the script of secrets and fears written in the fading ink of the moment.

A reel Rorschach test: Art and arguments, beauty and brouhahas, depression and uplifting accomplishments -- the serene and the serendipitous bashed by the fated and the unfulfilled make "In a Dream" so ethereal albeit not ephemeral.

"My father's work ... he carries such a treasure trove in his mind as well," states his son of the concrete and the creations still in creative embryo.

But Isaiah as film star?

"My mother thought it would be a good time for us to become a family again," Jeremiah recalls of the emotional drift that had separated father from family, their South Street ties gone south for the moment. "I was away at college (Emerson), my father was working all the time ... it was a way, making this film, for us to relate as peers, to crystallize his work."

No crystal ball could predict what the film held in its future. Has Julia shown any regret setting the movie in motion, picturing none of what would come out for the world to see?

"I have never seen her regret anything," says her son proudly and factually.

The owner of the Eye's Gallery is an eyeful of affection and enduring love for a husband built, like his art, seemingly of many pieces and prickly parts. Not all of the fascinating facets wind up on screen.

When there was a conflict of focus, did the son or filmmaker take over the camera?

"The son took over from filmmaker," concedes Jeremiah.

"The trip we took to enroll [his father] at the Friends Hospital" when he had a breakdown? "I didn't film it. And the scenes where we go to the country, I waited two to three days to film them. He was too close to the edge."

The precipice of problems his father faced edge into the too personal for audiences in some cases. But art is not always by necessity pretty.

Indeed, says the son: "I am drawn to the grotesque; life is full of pain and of joy. We ignore the pain a lot -- I'm not interested in the cleanliness of pain."

Getting down and dirty with life's detritus can be disturbing. The storyteller has told on himself, but he is no mirror -- mosaic or otherwise -- image of his father.

His No. 1 fan? The focal point of it all.

"He loves the movie," says Jeremiah of Isaiah.

Is it real or Memorex? "My father sees himself and the family as they are on screen, but in a way also as created characters."

You don't have to be the Orlons to ask where did all the hippies meet. South Street is a character itself in the street theater that is this boulevard of "Dreams."

It is not just a street, but pieces of my home," says Jeremiah of the many bejeweled buildings festooned by his father's art.

The South shall rise again?

"My parents built that street 30 years ago."

Architects as archtypes of old ideals and ideas?

"Theirs was an immigrant philosophy," he explains, a Jewish revolt against oppression, repression, and the instigation of "community built on a Jewish ideal and unending work ethic. And the Jewish need to believe in yourself."

Believe it, Judaism has been a Jerusalem stone of a building block in their lives as well.

"Culturally, my parents are as Jewish as it gets," coming from Orthodox ancestry that stressed education and understanding.

Jeremiah got both at Akiba Hebrew Academy (now the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy) -- where he also got the underpinnings of his motion-picture career; that is where he met fellow student Jeremy Yaches, and forged a decades-long friendship and artistic ardor and vision. Yaches is the picture's producer: "We share the 'Dream,' " relates the filmmaker of his everything-but-blood brother, who "probably had more input into this film than the relationship I had with my parents."

His move to movies was in his blood early on; Jeremiah's journey as filmmaker took its focus at Akiba. "My love is storytelling, and Judaism is such a rich, wonderful story," he says of its tales and their telling influence on him.

Fade in, but not out on family: The film has had its own impact. "My parents are doing very well," he says of the quarreling Zagars, back "together; they just graduated from couples' therapy."

Coupled with his brother's ongoing improvements and achievements, after drug rehab, the zany Zagars paint a picture of ... normalcy?

Well, normalcy with a South Street quirk paved into the cemented relationships. But then, maybe for the first time in their furious and now filmed lives, the first family of mosaics -- once splintered, jagged, cracked -- is now getting the big picture. 

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