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.