We batched these three together because they’re clearly, quintissentially for the hardcore comics enthusiast. These are history books first—documenting the first appearance of a character, the initial emergence of a storyline, the series’ run, the writers and artists—and art books simultaneously, true to the form. These books are big, they’re gorgeous, and of course, they’re ‘encyclopedic’ in scope and presentation. The ecstatic recipient has a large, sturdy bookshelf, no doubt cluttered with comics actions figures, with which to house them.
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If Motown was the granddaddy of modern Black music, and Stax was its scruffy, shady-yet-magnetic uncle, Philly Soul was the prim-and-proper little sister with a mean streak beneath the makeup. If universality is a sign of great pop, Philadelphia International produced some of the best. Ever. That music is at the center of the long-overdue Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia. A four-disc, 71-track set, it features no fewer that 26 #1 R&B hits and 27 Top Ten pop hits. Though it spans from Gamble, Huff, and Bell’s early careers to Philadelphia International’s distribution deal with EMI in 1984, its main focus is on the halcyon years 1971-1976. And the collection, overseen by Gamble and Huff themselves, does it right. Everything’s chronological, from start to finish. No incongruous, “themed” discs. No superfluous demos and live tracks. Just the hits, and there were plenty of them. Philadelphia International’s two premier acts, the O’Jays and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, are as well-represented as one might expect, with over a quarter of the 71 tracks. With few exceptions, Love Train is a de facto greatest hits for both. If you don’t already have the O’Jays and Blue Notes stuff, you’re already behind the ball. But here’s your chance to make things right, because, aside from the obvious classics, the best thing about Love Train is all the relatively underappreciated, sometimes hidden, gems.
The movie itself (also known as Zibahkhana) is your standard slasher effort. A group of teens head out to see a concert and get systematically butchered by an unseen assassin. That the killer wears a bloodied burka is the first note that something rather extraordinary is happening here. Advertised as “Pakistan’s First Gore Film”, DVD distributor TLA Releasing has given sweet shop/internet café owner turned filmmaker Omar Khan a wealth of added content to explain the problems of making horror flicks under the strict religious laws and government censorship of his homeland. This material is far more fascinating—and frightening—than the film itself.
It’s hard to argue against the notion that mosaic maker Isaiah Zagar has led the most charmed of professional lives. Over the course of his near five decades as an artist, he’s had the relative free reign to transform derelict buildings in his hometown of Philadelphia into amazing works of architectural wonder. He’s had a wife (Julia) who adores him, two sons (Ezekiel and Jeremiah) who take after his creative mantle and a growing appreciation from both society and scholarship. He never seems to want for anything, and goes about a grueling daily ritual of work after decades doing the same. So why did he have to go and mess it all up? Why did he have to give into longings that, as his advanced age, should have been relegated to the salad days of a misspent youth?
In his fascinating documentary, In a Dream, youngest Zagar boy Jeremy is determined to discover what makes his sometimes distance dad tick. Following him around with a camera, the beginnings of a biography emerge. But then things take a strange, almost surreal turn. Brother Zeke separates from his wife of 10 years, and the pain causes him to return home, grow isolated, and disappear into drug addiction. Then, one day, out of the blue, Isaiah announces that he’s having an affair with his assistant. The family that withstood mood swings, hospitalizations, and an initial disinterest in the now heralded mosaics suddenly shifts from eccentric to everyday, the pain of rehab and martial discord dissolving years of pleasant memories.
But something about the Zagars will endure, and as In a Dream deepens, the means of survival becomes clear. Everyone here has issues. In a matter of fact conversation, Isaiah discusses how an older man taught him the joys of fishing - and the confusion of molestation. Later, Julia can’t fathom why, on the day she was supposed to visit Zeke in the hospital, her husband would drop his random bombshell of infidelity. Through insanity and institutionalization, the radical tone of the ‘60s and the rarified appreciation of the ‘90, the Zagars tend to mirror their times. When things were tumultuous, out of control, and wildly experimental, so were they. When society swung toward a more conservative bent, expressions of art were reconfigured as idiosyncratic urban renewal.
And what amazing works they are. Son Jeremy clearly appreciates what his dad has built up over all these years, and much of In a Dream‘s running time is taken up with long, languishing looks at these vast visions. Details include sexual in-jokes, family portraits, shards of reflective mirror, and wholly random junk. When looked at on a larger scale, we see cosmic considerations, the whole of mankind, and the intimacies of one man’s flawed persona made public. The fact that, at near 70, he still puts in the endless hours to realize his lofty ambitions is matched only by the boundless imagination his work demonstrates. It’s also clear why the Zagars threaten to unravel so often - in their lives, Isaiah’s efforts are everything.
Yet this is not a portrait of a man disassociated from reality. Even when we learn of sanatorium stays, it’s depression, not imaginary pixies, which populate his mind space. No, all Isaiah wants to do is create. It’s so obvious that when Julia mandates he leave post-betrayal, he’s unable to do much of anything. He becomes inert. Throughout the film, we hear his family discuss the need to keep moving forward, to forget the past, put it behind, and find the doorway into a new and more productive future. While In a Dream argues that this may be the reason each family crisis goes megaton nuclear, it also exposes the far too comfortable reliance on the past to explain present problems. Like the sexual abuse he experienced as a boy, Isaiah processes the experience and then moves on.
Thanks to some amazing archival material (all of the Zagars chronicled the family for many years) and a little bit of filmmaking as fate, In a Dream blooms and then blossoms. We are staggered by the scope of Isaiah’s pieces, some encompassing entire buildings. We are curious about money and how it’s made (a gallery is mentioned, but that’s it). Some stories are left unfinished (Zeke seems on the road to recovery, but we never learn where it eventually leads) and there’s an almost cliché kind of closure at the end, something suggesting that, when people find their soulmate, it’s almost impossible to shake the connection.
Still, one can’t deny the power of people who pure their heart and humanity into every waking hour and each expression of imagination. For all his flaws - and In a Dream hints at too many to handle in 77 minutes - Isaiah Zagar stands as a shining example of one man constantly fighting to fulfill his own vision of the world he wants to live in. Not just the clever combinations of broken tiles, sketched symbols, life stories, and colored grout. It’s the way he sees his wife, his children, his choices, and the inevitable fall out that comes from it all. In a Dream may suggest where the Zagars spend most of their time. But in the case of any artist (and those within his sphere of influence), everything is reveries. There’s no need to be asleep, or awake. That’s just the way it is.
“The Troubles” - what a calm, contemplative way of describing the dire and often deadly confrontation between the government of England and the independence movement in Ireland. In truth, the conflict was (if past tense is even appropriate) a complicated collection of competing ethnic, religious, and socio-political agendas wrapped up in decades of hatred, bloodshed, violence, and vengeance. As a subject, it’s too extreme, even for the most accomplished filmmaker. The scope alone would render any realization small and inconsequential. While he’s worked in the medium before, first time filmmaker Steve McQueen is new to the realm of the feature length domain - and to make matters more tenuous, he’s taking on the story of one of the “Troubles” most important figures - Bobby Sands.
Yet for all the pitfalls he could face, the artist turned director has delivered the astonishing, masterful Hunger. In a minimalist way which uses visuals to explain the deepest ideological divides and a single, 17 minute take to clarify all motives, McQueen condenses four decades of fighting into a single, epic overture. We watch as British guards go about their daily lives, anxious about being the victim of IRA sponsored crime while committing the kind of atrocities that earned them a spot in such a dead pool. We see the prisoners’ outrageous responses, from smearing feces on their cell walls to refusing to bathe or maintain personal hygiene. Without going into unnecessary expositional detail, McQueen shows us how bodily fluids were used as protest, how messages were transported among inmates and their loved one, and why Sands stood up to a English policy which deprived he and his fellow inmates of their basic rights and “political prisoner” status.
Certainly, some of the earliest images come at us free of almost mandatory context. We wonder who the characters are, picking up bits and pieces of personal information along the way. Dialogue is kept to a bare minimum, individuals interacting within an assumed set of facts. When we first meet Sands, it’s almost by accident. Physically beaten and restrained by the British guards before being taken into an area for an obligatory bathe, the animalistic nature of his responses offset the well considered conversation he later has with a visiting priest. During this spellbinding sequence, McQueen locks the camera down to capture the pair in profile. Bantering back and forth, mixing clear indications of position with occasional jokes, it’s one of the few cases where performance, previous visual clues, cinematic style, and the given content come together to almost singlehandedly restructure the film.
Indeed, Hunger can be looked at as a nightmare in three sections. Act one puts us smack dab in the middle of the “No Wash” protest. Part two takes us through the creation of the hunger strike. And the last segment shows, in horrific detail, the toll the stand takes on Sand. The sequences where open sores are dabbed with ointment, when an emaciated and skeletal man is carried like a pile of old rags from room to room, are heartbreakingly excruciating. As McQueen’s camera lingers on these images of pain, actor Michael Fassbender (who went on a doctor -ontrolled crash diet to look the part) registers the emotional will - however so slight, sometimes - that made Sands a martyr for the cause.
But if Hunger were just set-up, followed by suffering, we probably wouldn’t find it so fascinating. Because McQueen keeps things so closed off and isolated, because he lets us in little by little to what the “Troubles” mean to both sides of the conflict, we soon find ourselves locked within the dissension. It’s hard to champion either ideology, especially when Hunger narrows it down to a plaintive power struggle where brutality and hostility have usurped rationality. There are comments that mock the UK approach, while the terrorism employed by the IRA is explained, but never excused. In the end, we see how personal the battle has become. As Sands dies slowly, an assassination is carried out that’s shocking in its coldness and casualness.
In fact, it’s clear that Hunger is meant as both a testament to, and a condemnation of, everything the Troubles stood for in 1981. As tensions would rise, ebb, implode and then slowly ease (right now, The Belfast Agreement of 1998 keeps things relatively quiet and, dare it be said, peaceful), such outsized actions appear insane. We are meant to look at the constant beatings, the strong arm stances and immovable moral coding and smirk at how arcane it all seems. Yet Hunger also has a place in our post 9/11 mindset, a Thatcher dense reminder that both sides of an issue can take actions that lead to nothing but death and destruction. The perceived power in such a scheme is almost always dissipated by the lack of prudence inferred from the outside.
All politics aside, Hunger definitely announces McQueen as a filmmaker to watch. Like painter turned auteur Julian Schnabel with last year’s sensational The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the value of being an artist first, a director second is showcased here. Both men understand the inherent value in images, in keeping things simply, straightforward, and stark. There is no need for messy details or busy art direction. Instead, by carefully choosing what you intend to show, by making sure every picture within your film frame counts, you have the potential of making something truly special. Like the story of a former magazine editor who suffered a paralysis so severe he could only communicated by blinking his eye, the isolated torment and agonizing end to Bobby Sands’ life sounds like the stuff of stifling, stilted cinema. Hunger, and the man behind its making, proves just the opposite.