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by Bill Gibron

7 Dec 2008

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.

by Bill Gibron

6 Dec 2008

“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. 

by Sean Murphy

6 Dec 2008

A life well spent?

That’s the goal, isn’t it? For any of us. Not necessarily to be enshrined in a newspaper’s obituary (although few people would protest such a proposition), but to have affected even a few lives, to have left the world better; or failing that, different, than it would have been. Leading a life that is, in some way(s), directed outward as well as inward, cultivating a passion and then sharing it; assisting others in discovering or enjoying that passion. Not an inconsiderable accomplishment, by any standard.

Of course, some shoot higher. For instance, William Dowd (who died this week, aged 86, in Reston, VA–which makes me wish I’d met him). Dowd’s life’s work was reviving the craftmanship of harpsichords (a skill perfected in the 17th-century, when harpsichords were the electric guitars of their time). What prompted this singular ambition? After serving in World War II, interested in music but not properly trained, he fell in love with the quaint instrument after attending several classical music concerts. Along with lifelong friend and partner in crime Frank Hubbard, the two men engaged in the modest mission of (in their own words) “reviving single-handed the whole baroque orchestra.”

More from Dowd: “They were (no longer) making anything that was remotely like an antique harpsichord. We discovered a resonant, flowering sound which we liked. We, with the enthusiasm and rash brashness of the young, believed we knew how to bring back the authentic instrument upon which the early harpsichord music was all based.”

Over 800 harpsichords later, Dowd’s handiwork is scattered across countries all over the world, and arguably comprise a collection of the most frequently played–and appreciated–instruments. Says his wife, Pegram Epes Dowd: “Men like that ame back from World War II, and they believed there was nothing they could not do. They really were risk takers. I think it was very heroic.”

It seems somehow appropriate that in assessing the work of what could fairly, if somewhat inadequately, be described as a quintessential 20th-century man, one is obliged to discuss a type of music (and the instrument upon which most of it was composed) made several centuries before he was born. It goes beyond the obvious, but essential, actuality that Dowd was keeping alive music that cannot (and fortunately, for the forseeable future, will not) die; his life is necessarily larger (in scope, in ambition, in consequence) because he devoted his energies toward a force that endures simply by virtue of being. It is not a stretch, then, to propose that Dowd will continue on through the music played on the instruments he assembled.

We shall not see his like again. That this encomium is offered up so frequently is, for once and in a refreshing exception, a demonstration of the power of cliche: that we’ve had so many individuals deemed worthy of this praise says much about our potential as human beings. It is, nevertheless, more than a little bittersweet to consider the larger implications of Dowd’s ambition. Will we have enterprising craftsmen dedicating their best years to the refinement of harpsichord construction in the 21st century? Will we have people even listening to harpsichord music? The answer, obviously, is yes; at least to the second query. But it still warrants consideration: even though every generation necessarily mourns the inevitable passing of its so-called best and brightest, when it comes to artistic endeavors, once we lose advocates (not to mention the actual artists) that part of our world becomes a little bit smaller. Over time, these losses constitute an erosion that simply can’t be replicated.

Progress in virtually every other earthly endeavor, from medicine to science to sports, is always pulling us forward to the future: advancements are the currency of innovation and they render the old ways irrelevant, dispensable. The opposite might be said to be the case with art: innovation does occur, and it is welcome and inexorable, but entire periods of time are contained within particular artistic movements; these eras are a very real way in which we can assess ourselves. Put more prosaically, no one is going to lament the loss of, say, 20th-century (to say nothing of 17th-century!) medical practices; our collective progress means less pain and more salubrity for us all. The art being created today (and that will be created tomorrow) is, to be certain, as valid, meaningful and useful as the works enshrined in museums and box sets. Indeed, our art today naturally says as much about us now as art from yesterday speaks of the way we lived, then. Still, while we celebrate the exceptional life and achievements of William Dowd, we should also hope that his work serves to inspire an individual, not yet been born, who will find himself drawn irretrievably toward a past he is able to apprehend, miraculously, through the music.

*Dowd’s obituary, in today’s Washington Post, can be found here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/05/AR2008120503631.html?wprss=rss_metro%2Fobituaries

by Bill Gibron

5 Dec 2008

In the highly competitive and lucrative world of CG animation, there’s Pixar…and then everyone else. While it’s clear that companies like Dreamworks, Fox, and the House of Mouse itself, Disney, have made great strides to catch up to John Lasseter and the gang, no one can top recent, award-winning masterworks like Wall-E, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and Cars…that is, until now. Yep, leave it to the newly inspired workers of Uncle Walt’s world to finally step up their game (with a little outside help) and deliver one of 2008’s most rock solid family entertainments. While Bolt may not be the timeless classic of its partner’s predecessors, it shows that efforts like Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons were little more than mere mediocre warm-ups.

As the star of TV’s biggest action hit, Bolt is a very sheltered dog. As a matter of fact, the production company has kept him in the dark about his fictional hero status. He’s never left his trailer in over five years. So when he is accidentally separated from his on-air “person”, child star Penny, and winds up thousands of miles from Hollywood in NYC, he’s one disoriented dog. Hooking up with a cynical alley cat named Mittens, Bolt is eager to get back to his master. But as he soon learns, he’s not possessed of the super powers that make his adventures on TV so successful. This causes a whole new set of problems. Eventually, the duo meets up with starstruck hamster Rhino. Together, the trio attempts to stay alive, travel across the country, and reunite with Penny and the production team.

Back before the PC ran everything, Bolt would have been the kind of movie the Disney Company made in their sleep. It’s slick, sophisticated, incredibly well scripted, and sprinkled with enough ani-magic fairy dust to keep both the adults and the wee ones totally sated. From the pitch perfect voice casting - yes even Miley Cyrus - to the wonderful action sequences that set up Bolt’s complicated persona, first time directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams never miss a bravura beat. Instead, they take what could have been cloying and maudlin, aimed directly at the diminished demo that the House of Mouse has been milking for nearly three decades, and deliver something startling and a whole lot of fun. You may feel slightly manipulated, but cute pets in trouble can do that to a viewer.

John Travolta, who voices our canine lead, does something truly remarkable here. He manages to make us forget his own international superstardom and through the force of his performance, gets us to care for a pen and ink pooch. This isn’t the first time an actor’s strengths have lent credibility and potency to an animated effort, but Travolta’s work in Bolt is just outstanding. So are the supporting players, including the tween phenom as girl in peril Penny, comic Susie Essman as gnarled New York kitty Mittens, voice over artist Mark Walton as Rhino, and some surprise cameos (Malcolm McDowell, James Lipton) in luminous lesser roles. With art design that suggests humanness without really getting into realistic detail, all aspects of Bolt are polished and professional.

But perhaps the biggest surprise here is how Disney has managed to make a successful commercial film that doesn’t feel like a crass, calculated cash grab. For years now, the minds behind such hapless 2D dreck as Home on the Range, Brother Bear, and about a billion direct to DVD titles, have threatened to become irrelevant within the medium they helped create. Full length feature animation would be nothing without Walt’s way with storytelling…and product selling. But since the advent of home video, all Disney has cared about is the bottom line. Money, not emotional satisfaction, has been its main priority. But with Bolt, you can sense that shifting. You can see where elements that may not play directly into the studio planned parental babysitting (the over the top stunts, for example) have instead been embraced, utilized to accent the sense of adventure and over cinematic wonder. 

Also, there’s a lot of heart in this film. Bolt’s earnest affection for Penny really comes through, and while always playing the party pooper, Mittens gets a Las Vegas moment that’s truly telling. Rhino may be the movie’s only obvious effort at smile driven attention grabbing, what with his goofball mugging and pop culture shout outs. Yet within the context of everything else, it works, as does Miley’s mandatory song (gotta keep all revenue streams open, right?). In fact, Ms. Cyrus is not a weak link here by any capacity. The drawl has been toned down substantially, and Penny doesn’t resemble the Hannah Montana star one bit. If you weren’t told this was Miss Best of Both Worlds, you’d never really guess her temporary A-list identity.

Indeed, the inherent charms of Bolt make issues like cross-promotion and product placement seem ancillary, or even obsolete. It’s rare that we get lost in such fictional derring-do, that a bunch of moving bitmaps can charm us in ways that even live action films lack. But thanks to the imagination of the powers who used to rule the cartoon artform, we can escape for 80 minutes of merry mutt hijinx. And for those lucky enough to experience the film in Disney’s new 3D process, the picture is IMAX-level remarkable. The amount of depth and detail is truly astounding. As Pixar moves forward with its future projects, Disney is relying on their newfound affiliation to keep, as well as reconstruct, its position as the industry’s leading light. Bolt proves that the link is definitely working.

by Jill LaBrack

5 Dec 2008

The Unreleased Recordings is a bit of a godsend. Like reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries or seeing the metamorphosis of Jackson Pollock through exhibit, this collection serves to help complete the picture of a human being we can never know too much about. The songs come from radio station WSM in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1951, Hank Williams stopped by every so often to record 15-minute segments that were then played early in the morning. He sang some of his own songs and covered many of his personal favorites. His backing bands and singers were always top-notch. Best of all, the quality is exceptional. WSM clearly knew to take care of these acetates and the transfer to digital could not be better. Taken together, these factors add up to a perfect treasure. This is a collection for the obsessive, the skeptic, and even the novice, who will feel grateful rather than overwhelmed that there are a full three discs worth of material to plunder.

AMAZON

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