Searching for the Mysterium Tremendum
This portrait of a muralist who’s spent his life filling urban Philadelphia buildings with mosaics is also a family drama and a primer on successfully coping with mental illness.
Isaiah Zagar’s epic mosaic work fills seven buildings (exterior and interior walls, floors, and ceilings) and seven alleyways, totaling 100 murals, by the artist’s own count. Broken mirror pieces combine with tiles, colored mortar, and paint that Zagar adds after the fact to create representative and abstract designs occasionally augmented by words. Zagar also paints and draws, and the film documents many of his pictures—especially his line drawings that mix caricatured figures with text and recall the work of counterculture cartoonists like R. Crumb.
“I’m fascinated with giganticness”, Zagar announces early in the film, and In a Dream shows that he makes good on that fascination. The camera dollies back from a close-up of Zagar to reveal the extensive mosaic work that surrounds him. Tracking shots follow the artist as he walks along the side of a mural-covered building, through a hallway of his home in one of the buildings, or down one of his decorated alleys. We watch him make mortar in a large tank, using a hoe to mix water with sacks of concrete and copious amounts of pigment.
The muralist describes his work in terms straight out of his formative years in the ‘60s. “I’m not searching for an answer so much as I’m searching for encounter, I’m searching for the mysterium tremendum in everything, in everything!” The alleyways do incorporate a little of everything, including found objects: bottles, bicycle tires, plates.
“All my artwork is a journal of my life”, Zagar observes, and the work we see in the film is almost exclusively autobiographical. The murals feature portraits of himself, wife Julia, and sons Ezekiel and Jeremiah (the latter the director of In a Dream). Zagar fills loose-leaf notebooks with sheets that further document his life, along with pages and pages of handwritten text. One segment captures Zagar sketching Julia at a café. He rolls the drawing up and puts it in his bag (presumably to take home to archive).
The journal metaphor also gets at his obsessive discipline. He works every day, starting just after dawn, scoring and breaking mirrors into mosaic pieces, mixing mortar, preparing surfaces, creating murals, and decorating them with paint. In one illustrated sheet, Zagar documents his son’s film project; with it, the father suggests the documentary was the mother’s idea, and in this we see the first inkling not only that Zagar’s family has been incorporated into his work, but also that his wife has taken on the lifetime project of keeping the artist’s self-destructive tendencies in check.
We learn that Zagar’s lifetime art project combines his childhood dream to be an artist “my whole life” and a therapist’s insistence that he work to avoid the malaise and disassociation that led to his suicide attempt and subsequent hospitalization at 29. In the hospital, Zagar worked polishing brass and discovered the therapeutic power of labor and orderly production, of putting “one thing next to another”. Shots of Zagar touching or polishing the reflective surfaces of his murals echo this foundational moment that simultaneously gave him back his sanity and pointed the way to his life’s work.
Isaiah and Julia Zagar emerge in the film as perfectly suited for each other (or co-dependent, perhaps, from a clinical perspective). He makes art; she runs a gallery. She finds abandoned buildings, negotiates the real estate deals, and later rents the properties out; he covers the structures in murals. He works on his art (murals, drawings, journals) during nearly every waking hour of the day; she provides a stable home environment.
So when they split briefly in the middle of the film, and Zagar moves in with a friend upstate, the artist shuts down emotionally and creatively. When they reunite, it’s of course Julia who gets him working again.
While Jeremiah Zagar keeps himself out of the film for the most part (we occasionally hear him asking questions of his father), at one point Isaiah asks him to come out from behind the camera and join the rest of the family for a meal. It’s a touching moment, for offering the glimpse of a family that remains close despite their troubles, but also because it becomes clear that the elder Zagar sees his son’s film as akin to his own work, another means of archiving the family.
“You caught a lot, Jer, you got a lot in that camera”, he tells him in another scene. It’s as if the father’s invitation to the son to participate in his own film reflects his wish that the son’s work be as comprehensive as his own. By including this interaction, Jeremiah Zagar invites us to wonder if his filmmaking isn’t a coping strategy akin to his father’s.
In a Dream is the first feature directed by Jeremiah Zagar, who has a number of films to his credit as editor, a duty he shares for this film, as well. And while he flirts with some of the pitfalls of profiles made by family members—lack of objective perspective, a focus on issues of more interest to family than to a general audience, omission of some background necessary for audiences need to put events in context—he manages to transcend them. Isaiah Zagar’s art is so intimately connected to his life and to his family that to document the former requires documenting the latter.
The soundtrack, with music by Kelli Scarr and songs by The Books, Explosions in the Sky, and Efterklang perfectly captures Isaiah Zagar’s closed, yet expansive world.
Extras include an alternate ending to In a Dream, deleted scenes, the film trailer, a music video by Efterklang, and three short documentary films about Isaiah Zagar. In one of the shorts, Zagar recalls his childhood visits to the Coney Island beach, another documents his and Julia’s recommitment ceremony, and the third provides an alternate foundational narrative for Zagar’s art: the day he moved his crayon from a coloring book to the kitchen table, then the floor, then the walls, then the ceiling. It’s interesting that Jeremiah Zagar left this explanation out of In a Dream, in favor of his father’s suggestion that his mural-making grew out of insights that came to him during his hospitalization.