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by Bill Gibron

10 Dec 2008

In the current climate of motion picture making, where does the soundtrack really stand? When watching a remarkable movie like, say, Revolutionary Road, do you care that the music behind Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio is working, or that you can head on over to ITunes after the screening and download yourself a copy of Thomas Newman’s extraordinary score? Do audiences really appreciate the supplemental CD of a film’s sonic sentiments, or are they just too busy buying into the prepackaged and programmed plotting to care much about the aural material surrounding it. Sure, there are rare instances when a movie makes itself so culturally significant (Titanic, The Dark Knight) that people will purchase anything connected to it. But what about the everyday effort? Do journeymen have any place in the merchandising domain, even when the do amazing work?

That’s the question facing the three soundtracks offered up for consideration as part of SE&L‘s recurrent recording roundtable, Surround Sound. This time, we see an upcoming family film, a current CG hit, and a usual independent offering getting positive notice, all threatening to have their composer’s sweat and toil trampled by a general public indifference. And what’s even more disheartening is that each individual offering is good - very good in some cases. But unless you have a cash register ringer so to speak (ain’t that right Miss Cyrus), few if any may become aware of your imagination and innovation. While it’s sad to say it, that’s the apparent state of the soundtrack biz. Anyway, let’s begin with an upcoming effort:

Marley & Me - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

For a relatively young man (37), Theodore Shapiro has had quite a unique career as a film composer. Getting his start on the MTV sketch comedy series The State, he quickly became the go-to guy for the entire Stiller/Wilson/Wain school of slacker comedy. Recently, he’s been involved in such high profile projects as The Devil Wears Prada, Blades of Glory, and Tropic Thunder. So it seems strange for someone working within such crazed crackpot canvases to take on a family-oriented animal lovers movie. But that’s exactly what Shapiro did when he signed up to provide the sonic backing for John Grogan’s memoir, Marley and Me. While it may seem like an odd combination at first, the music speaks volumes for the artist’s ability to adapt.

For something with a sincerely sentimental premise (following the adventures of a family dog from adoption to death), Shapiro’s score for Marley and Me is surprisingly spunky. Acoustic guitars ring across jaunty soft rock ramblings. Oddball bossanova moves accent the film’s sunny South Florida locations. While some of the sounds here are meant to copy the fun-loving, mischievous nature of the title pup (“Off and Running”), or the mandatory movie passage of time (“Two Year Montage”), there is an inherent melancholy to the way Shapiro chooses his approach. This is especially true towards the end when we get several, sobering snippets (“When It’s Time”, “Boy and Dog”). Such sentimentality, however, is often thwarted by a big, rollicking rock-n-roll statement like “Heading Home” or the terrific title track. By constantly repeating certain themes, Shapiro ensures that we will be humming the main melody lines long after we’ve forgotten the film they come from.


Bolt - An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack [rating: 7]

At one time, animated films were almost always mandated to be musicals. Even if the characters didn’t sing the actual songs, studios put potential pop hits directly into their pen and ink adventures, the better to guarantee brisk soundtrack sales later on. All that stopped in the mid ‘90s, when studios like Dreamworks and Fox tried to take the artform in a slightly different, more snarky and non-singing, non-dancing direction. And that’s where it’s stayed, more or less. Pixar proved you didn’t need production numbers to sell tickets, and over the years, the slow death of 2D animation meant a limit on the number of Alan Menken/Elton John penned ballads. The latest from Disney, the delightful Bolt, doesn’t propose to change this approach. But when you’ve completely re-recorded an entire vocal performance to take an actress out, and to put a multiplatinum tween recording phenomenon in, you just know there’s going to be a couple of indirect aural references to such charttopper’s powerhouse skills. 

The mandatory Miley track aside (more on this in a moment) and the material from Ms. Jenny Lewis also initially forgiven, Bolt begins its run through several soundtrack stereotypes. We get the big bold action opening and stunt sequences (“Bolt Transforms”, “Scooter Chase”), the pastoral scenic sections (“The RV Park”), and the moments of humble heroics (“Where Were You on St. Rhino’s Day”). In between Powell, doesn’t waver. Everything is either bongo-driven road movie forcefulness (“Saving Mittens”) or a mix of light and soft (“House on Wheels”). As for the two actual songs on the CD, the Cyrus tune is accented by some intriguing help from co-star John Travolta on vocals (some of his strongest since Grease, or that early ‘70s hit “Let Her In”). It’s great to hear the actor working his vocal pipes again. Similarly Ms. Lewis’ track is unobtrusive and sweet, a tad too maudlin with a title that begs for creative reconsideration (“Barking at the Moon” - in a film about a dog…), but it does offer some nice cross-promotion possibilities for the House of Mouse, who is always looking for a way to maximize the return on their product.

Synecdoche, New York - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

You expect weird from screenwriter turned first time filmmaker Charlie Kaufman. The man practically perspires eccentricity. He’s quirky in bizarro world wackness. If his scripts weren’t strange enough, his public persona is a mixture of hermit, serial killer, and that way too smart kid in school who ended up sitting in his low rent basement apartment making wine all throughout college. While many feel the man is too meta for his own good, his most recent film has got critics both praising him while simultaneously scratching their more than befuddled head. To try and describe this movie’s premise is next to impossible. But it’s safe to say that the work of the equally idiosyncratic Jon Brion is borderline brilliant. Unlike the music he’s recorded for Paul Thomas Anderson (Sydney, Magnolia, Punch-drunk Love) or select comedies (I Heart Huckabees, Step Brothers), this is one soundtrack that’s in perfect sync with the director’s delusional genius.

As a score, Synecdoche New York is a uber-weird combination of old school composing, hackneyed homage irony, and just a tad too much stinging self-consciousness. Tracks have names that defy description (“DMI Thing From When She Was in the Kitchen”, “Someone Else’s Forward Motion (Posing as Your Own)”) and every once in a while Brion will step in and turn everything into a piece of pure instrumental bliss (“Piano One”). This is one musician who likes to mix things up, complex string pieces purposefully crashing into somber, almost ethereal New Age ambiance. Toward the end, actual songs are introduced, with “Little Person” and “Song for Caden” having a similar, lo-fi appeal. The last number, “Schenectady” sounds a tad too much like Sufjan Stevens channeled through Randy Newman. Still, for something meant to match with Kaufman’s crazed visions, Brion does a bang-up job.

by Bill Gibron

9 Dec 2008

All across the web this past week, it’s been the subject of much metaphysical ink. As awards season slowly winds down, Hollywood is dragging out the proverbial heavy hitters, and oddly enough, quite a few deal with World War II, Nazi Germany, and in ways both direct and indirect, the Holocaust. Back in 2004, a documentary entitled Imaginary Witness discussed with great clarity and foresight the issue of bringing history’s greatest crime to the entertainment mediums. It’s important to remember that, less than 30 years ago, the amazing TV mini-series Holocaust was criticized for turning the fate of six million Jews into a commercial conceit. One wonders what the pundits in that piece would think about the current trend toward turning the Shoah into show business.

The arguments on both sides seem salient enough. Harvey Weinstein, whose company is pushing The Reader for Oscar gold, has a “more the merrier” attitude. By putting out films with Holocaust themes, he suggests, it keeps the “Never Forget” mandate alive.  On the other hand, journalists like Stuart Klawans suggest that “by continually replaying and reframing and reinventing the past, these movies are starting to cloud the very history they claim to commemorate.” Since many of the movies being made are not fact based, but instead rely on the Holocaust as a fictional catalyst for plot, character, and or thematic development, the import of the event itself is being shuttled aside for the sake of standard moviemaking formula.

It’s a trend that can be traced back to Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful. Love it or loathe it, this serio-comic take on the tragedy proved that not every story about the suffering of Europe’s Jewish populace had to be Schindler’s List. Indeed, while Steven Spielberg set the benchmark with his haunting, horrific epic, no one would argue that it was the last word on the carnage (last year’s Counterfeiter confirms that concept). But sitting through the films being offered as part of 2008’s year end overdrive, one gets the distinct impression that the death, pain, and suffering inflicted by the Nazis has gone from being a monumental human atrocity to a go-to gimmick for an otherwise vacant cinematic statement.

Take the aforementioned Weinstein effort. Without going into detail, the war crimes of one character are debated in court proceedings that do little to illustrate their vile callousness. The only real passion for the crimes comes when, during sentencing, a group of concentration camp survivors scream out anguished epithets. Similarly, a last act element that feels tagged on allows the film’s protagonist, a German man (played by Ralph Fiennes) with a horribly guilty conscience, to make with the mea culpa. As he confesses his teenage affair with the woman who was once an “only following orders” murderer, situational stand-in Lena Olin gets to pass joyless PC judgment.

Or what about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas? This is one of the few films ever that takes the tragedy suffered by millions of families and gives it over to the guys in the swastikas. Throughout the course of the entire film, a young German boy and a frail Jewish prisoner become typical childhood pals. When poor little Schmuel’s father goes missing in the camp, adventurous Teutonic lad Bruno BREAKS INTO the compound, dons the inmate’s garb, and begins the hunt. Eventually, he is rounded up and sent to the gas chamber, along with his newfound friend. Horrifying yes, but where is the emotion actually laid. We don’t get anyone crying for the millions of Jews who died, but Bruno’s Nazi parents are pie-eyed over the loss.

In some instances, the films present the Holocaust as a motive, nothing more. Tom Cruise pays the situation lip service when, in the upcoming Valkyrie his Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg argues for the reasons to assassinate Hitler. Once mentioned, the liberation of the camps is offered as a possible, post-coup agenda item. That’s it. In other cases, the issue is treated with a confusing ‘direct tenuousness’. In Paul Schrader’s Adam Resurrected, Jeff Goldblum is very good as an ex-circus performer who survived the Holocaust by being a camp commandant’s court jester, so to speak. Years later, he’s in an insane asylum in Israel, reliving his days as the Nazi’s literal ‘dog’.

But Defiance may be the ultimate example of where all this is eventually going. Edward Zwick’s epic tale of the real-life Bieliski Brothers, who escape persecution in Poland and joined up with Russian Resistance fighters to battle the Germans, is like a modern Hollywood action film with the Shoah served up on the side. What these siblings did (within the context of a fictionalized film about same, of course) is astonishing, and it’s an important part of the overall narrative of the War. But is it any more reverent to offer up shoot ‘em up crowd pleasing bullet ballets as part of history rather than slapstick belly laughs? One senses that Zwick sees nothing wrong with offering violence as a viable solution. After all, who would really argue with such a Rambo-like response?

But this goes to the bigger issue of what the Holocaust is supposed to signify, both symbolically and cinematically. In The Reader, it’s a moral dilemma for a young man sexually obsessed with a fragile, enigmatic woman. In Adam Resurrected, it’s the ends to a mental means. Defiance makes it the “eye for an eye” rationale, while Valkyrie does something similar, if a lot more subtle. Only The Boy in the Striped Pajamas seems to have its intentions in the wrong ethnic divide. Certainly there were good Germans (as Cruise and company try to prove over and over), but to make the death of one of the Fatherland’s own more important than the slaughter of six million others seems unconscionable.

Mind you, in all the cases mentioned, the Holocaust is not ridiculed or mocked. No one tries to argue it away, excuse it, or lessen its truly unimaginable hideousness. But we aren’t talking about a specific battle here, or an important but forgotten figure. This is genocide on a massive, premeditated, and unfathomably systematic scale. It’s as if each film here forgets what the overall purpose of Hitler’s Final Solution was - to eradicate the Jew from the face of the Earth. Does such an intention allow for what many might see as superficial treatment of the subject? And is Klawans right? Does the overexposure of the Holocaust threaten to turn it into a narrative device like drug abuse or molestation - one time hot button topics that now seem passé and predictable.

Indeed, the biggest fear here is not “forgetting”, but forgetting what’s important. Before he made Schindler’s List, Spielberg argued that he had to “grow up” as a filmmaker, maturity being the key to handling an issue this massive and important. Nowadays, all one needs is a script (typically based on a well-meaning novel of some sort) and an inferred sense of the serious to make their movie. In each way, the films here have aims that are good to grand, and in the execution no one truly stumbles. But at some point, the Holocaust will misplace its mainstream meaning, and that’s one part of this unbridled tragedy that never should be lost. Ever. 

by Bill Gibron

7 Dec 2008

Johnny Depp is in (supposedly). So is his own personal Goth guru Tim Burton (reportedly). If we are to believe trade tattletales like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, the provocative pairing, currently working on a big screen adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (the former as the Mad Hatter, the latter as filmmaker), will follow up such spectacle with a re-vamp of Dan Curtis’ seminal horror soap opera, Dark Shadows. That’s right, Depp is lined up to bring tortured romantic and resident neckbiter Barnabas Collins to Twilight tweaked fan girls (and boys) everywhere. And given their exemplary track record - Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sweeney Todd, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - expectations have a right to be high.

Yet, oddly enough, Shadows is not a solo gig. Sure, Barnabas resurrected the series when creator Curtis’ House of the Seven Gables goof was tanking in the ratings, and he’s an integral component to its lasting legacy and success. But without an accomplished cast around him, actors who can understand the dynamic that drove Shadows to classic cult status, the whole thing could turn out rancid. We’re not talking retro here - we don’t want to recreate the original players. But Curtis knew how to play to his company’s strengths, and if Burton is smart, he’ll do something similar with the cinematic version. Anyway, with Depp out of the way, here are our picks for the rest of the troubled Collins clan and their merry band of employees, enemies, and hangers-on:

The Men

Roger Collins - as played by “Big” Louis Edmunds, Roger was one of several Shadows’ characters of questionable conviction and perplexing personal ‘orientation’. The “was he/wasn’t he” argument rages on, even with subplots involving phantom wives and hateful offspring. So a modern actor of equal ambiguity needs to be found, and though he’s poised as a leading man, Jude Law could easily fill the (wo)man-crush character perfectly. Besides, being whiny and desperate are practically trademarks for the slight UK stud.
Quentin Collins - this one’s tough. David Selby walked the fine line between seduction and insanity for so long he appeared both romantic and ridiculous at the same time. When he wasn’t making cow eyes at anything in a skirt, he was battling his own inner lycanthrope (the character was cursed to be a werewolf, you see). We suggest Cillian Murphy, the amazing Irish actor who was Scarecrow in Batman Begins. If anyone can manage both real and ethereal animal magnetism, it’s this enigmatic, slightly askew actor.


Willie Loomis - ahhhhh…..Barnabas’ own sycophantic whipping boy, a character who literally feels the wraith-like wrath of the vampire’s pent up passions whenever the mood struck his master. If you’ve ever seen John Karlen whimper like a wounded pup, you’ll immediately understand why Paul Giamatti is the man to replace him. Willie has to be both resilient and weak, easily manipulated but frequently stricken by a strong moral code. The Sultan of Sideways could definitely bring that to the role - and much, much more.
Count Petofi - every good thriller needs a villain, and NO, the living dead lothario is not the bad guy here. Shadows was subversive in frequently making the monsters the protagonists of their surreal story arcs. So this crazed warlock with a missing magical hand would be the perfect Burton-like nemesis. He’s flamboyant yet ferocious, evil with just enough irony to make him both loathsome and loveable. And who better than Phillip Seymour Hoffman to essay the role’s many maniacal complications.

Aristede - in the TV series, this character was nothing more than a well dressed dandy with murder on his mind. He did the dirty work while his master Petofi took all the glory. Plotwise, he makes a perfect parallel and juxtaposition to Willie. As for casting, the current Aristede would have to be someone with a piercing stare and a “Hello Sailor” aura. We go with Twilight‘s Rob Pattinson. He’s got the broody menace and undead façade down pat.

The Women

Elizabeth Collins - as the moldy old matriarch of the Collins clan, Joan Bennett added a little Golden Era Hollywood glam to Curtis’ serialized spook show. She even got some good subplots now and again. For this go around, another grand dame would be suitable, and one imagines that Judy Dench would be just peachy. If you want to go American however, and a tad more hysterical, how about Meryl Streep? She’d look amazing in a black wig and widow’s garb.
Victoria Winters - the eternal victim at Collinwood, this nanny turned plot necessity has to have hidden strength and outward helplessness. Maggie Gyllenhall showed both when she took over the role of Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight (replacing another left-field possibility, Katie Holmes). Equally important, Jake’s older sister can easily act as the center of the storyline. Fans will never forget how original star Alexandra Moltke began each episode with the immortal lines, “My name is Victoria Winters…”
Maggie Evans - as one of two ingénue parts in Shadows, you just know Burton will be bucking to have his current sweetie (and mother of his children) Helena Bonham Carter as with Victoria or Maggie. While she’d probably make a better Angelique or Dr. Julia Hoffman (GOD forbid!), here’s hoping nepotism is cast aside, and someone like Kate Beckinsdale or, going less glamorous, Michelle Monaghan, is given a shot. Either one would make an easy, breezy interloper within the Collins family circle - and, even better, represent the Earthly presence of Barnabas’ long lost ghost love Josette.
Angelique - in her prime, Kathleen Turner would have been perfect in this part. Our witch (wickedly essayed by Laura Parker) with a memory and vengeance-oriented mind like a steal trap had to get tongues wagging and spines tingling with her certifiably insane sexiness. With Ms. Body Heat well past her prime, a current crazed coquette needs to be found. And while Angelina Jolie would seem like a box office given, we’d prefer to see someone like Naomi Watts chewing up the supernatural scenery. Or how about Elizabeth Banks. She’s beautiful, and can play batsh*t!
Dr. Julia Hoffman - it is literally impossible to replace the gaunt gal gravitas of Grayson Hall. She was all nicotine-stained bone structure and maiden aunt magnificence. Poised perfectly between early middle age and post-menopausal, Hall made Hoffman’s romantic lust for Barnabas into the most unique of unrequited loves. Taking her place would be tough, but here’s betting that someone like Joan Allen could handle the part brilliantly. She’s the right age, and carries the same combination of glamour and almost gone to seed as Hall.

The Kids

David Collins - the natural inclination here is to pick one of the many overused faces in the contemporary wee one’s talent pool (Freddie Highmore, we’re looking at you). But we’d prefer to see someone who has been relatively overlooked since stinking up the place as the post-millennial Damien in the awful Omen remake. But looking at him now, almost three years since that flop film, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick would make an excellent David. He already knows how to play evil. It’s all the other wimped out facets of the Collins kid that might cause him issues.
Amy Jennings - with a lineage that’s as confusing as any character’s in the show (she’s the child of ancillary personnel in the Collins’ legacy, yet then maintains a direct relationship to the family…huh), Amy is David’s partner in high-strung crime. While Abigail Breslin could probably handle it, we’re looking for someone a little more haunted and inherently spooky. And as big Sis Dakota is looking a tad awkward these days (and way too old), we’d go with her pint-sized sibling Elle Fanning. 


by Bill Gibron

7 Dec 2008

It’s the most hair-raising horror story ever. It’s enough to keep the most jaded adult up at night. The mere scope of the subject is so outrageous, so far beyond the capacity of most human imagination that an “out of sight, out of mind” response becomes an easy way of dealing with it (“it’s somebody else’s problem” coming in a distant second). Yet when one looks at the headlines or listens to the news these days, there’s no escaping it. It shaped the last election and threatens to undermine everything this country has created for the last 232 years. If you believe the terrifying documentary I.O.U.S.A., America is headed for a financial crisis of monumental proportions - and apparently, we are probably too late to keep it from happening.

Centering around the Fiscal Wake Up Tour, initiated by former United States Comptroller General David Walker (with substantial support from The Brookings Institute, The Concord Coalition, and the Heritage Foundation), director Patrick Creadon proposes four reasons - or “debts” - for our current capitalistic meltdown. The first is obvious - National Debt. The second, Savings Debt, puts the spendthrift credit addicted citizenry directly in the line of fire. The Trade Debt deals with our dependence on foreign investment, goods, and jobs to keep our country moving, and the last item - Leadership Debt - places much of the blame at the doorstep of post-modern politics. In essence, we’ve lived in a “too good to be true” system since Watergate wiped out our faith in government - and we’ve been unwilling to change it. 

As a point man, Walker is wise, articulate, and engaging. But at present, he appears to be playing to a jaded, jingoistic crowd. According to Creadon, Americans are still locked in a sense of entitlement. Like Veruca Salt, or Freddie Mercury and Queen, we want it all and we want it now. We don’t think about socking something away for the proverbial rainy day (unlike the Chinese, who take their $10 a day salary and still manage to save 50% of their earnings yearly) and overreaching in all aspects of our life - McMansions, overstuffed SUVs, crass creature comforts. But I.O.U.S.A. also illustrates how this relatively minor portion of the population ruins it for everyone else. By failing to restrain their own purse strings, there is a ripple effect down to the mired middle class and the working poor. That’s because, just like their elected representatives, the inferred wealthy wield power, and as a result, they dictate the kind of “voodoo” economics that got us in this mess in the first place.

One of the most fascinating elements of this documentary is the timeline explaining the US debt since 1776. There has rarely been an era when we’ve run at zero, and the Clinton surpluses are explained away as tagged-on treatments of the always available Social Security Trust Fund excesses. But with the Boomers about to hit retirement, and the current state of the economy balanced on the backs of policies that propose “spend now, pay later…much, much later”, I.O.U.S.A. argues that a breakdown is inevitable. Walker and his primary co-conspirator Bob Bixby (of Concord) seem exasperated in their conclusions, and the tour hopes to alert the country to the problem. But even with alarming statistic that would disturb even the soundest mind ($57 TRILLION debt in 20 years?!?!?), it’s apparently ‘head in the sand’ time.

As an entertainment, I.O.U.S.A. is occasionally confounding and always jaw-dropping. Creadon piles on the problems with such relish that the potential solutions get some incredibly short shrift (a musical montage? That’s the way to explain our potential path to escaping penury?). There’s also one too many ‘nobody’s listening’ moment, opportunities where Walker and his wise men are shuttled aside for more “audience friendly” news stories. The reliance on the next president seems prophetic, since the recent campaigns offered a clear contrast between business and usual and outside change. Yet I.O.U.S.A. argues that no quick fix is available. Tough times will call for equally harsh remedies - and the talking heads are convinced that Americans won’t cotton to such sacrifices.

Indeed, there’s plenty of blame to go around here, arguments pro and con regarding the realities of the world vs. our need for instant gratification and material satisfaction. When a skit from Saturday Night Live spoofs an infomercial offering a one page book entitled Don’t Buy Stuff You Cannot Afford, the clueless responses from the fake couple contain too much truth to be completely satiric. Clearly, the situation here is so bad that it’s almost impossible to laugh at. And don’t let left wing arguments about Bush’s War/Tax Cuts or Neo-Con criticisms of Pork Barrel spending throw you off. Together, they make up less than 10% of the overall budget and problem..

No, in 2008, the US is stuck paying service on an already massive debt, maintaining Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, and waiting for the fateful day when our foreign investors decide to pull rank. Like the old cliché says - it’s never fun to say ‘I told you so’ - but Walker has been pitching that party line for almost a decade. Oddly enough, one of the few Cabinet members to carry his torch - Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill - was fired by the President (via Vice President Cheney). Under the current administration, no news was not only good news - no bad news was great. For decades, propaganda and ineffectual policies have brought the nation to the verge of collapse. As I.O.U.S.A. argues, it may be too late to save this flat-lining patient.

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.

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