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In a Dream

Personal collapse in impressive structure
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  July 1, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for In a Dream

In a Dream |  80 minutes | SPACE Gallery | January 12 at 7:30 pm

If you find yourself groaning through the first five minutes of Jeremiah Zagar's Academy Award-shortlisted feature documentary about his artist father Isaiah, you might just be its target audience. Isaiah's sprawling tile mosaics — beautifully photographed, they cover 50,000 square feet of Philadelphia landscape, including the Zagar's entire home — are impressive in sheer scale and effort but earnest in execution, embellished with spelled-out sentiments like "free will" and crude drawings of his wife and children. It's reassuring, then, that Jeremiah uses this art to examine rather than extol his father. As Jeremiah delves further into his father's tumultuous past and eccentric impulses, his life's work becomes more rich and compelling.

Isaiah's gradual emotional collapse constitutes the narrative arc of the film, and you could hypothesize that the process of making the documentary with his son — necessitating explanations of an instance of childhood molestation and an attempted suicide attempt — contribute to it. As Jeremiah reveals the more provocative elements of Isaiah's art (an obsession with scatology, imagery that refers to his past trauma), he opens up the darker elements of his father's personality, namely an increasingly egocentric outlook and drive to explore passions he can't control. (The domineering patriarch is notably similar to that of Doug Wray's recent feature, Surfwise.) Isaiah becomes more insular and impulsive, and the family starts to come undone: in the film's most harrowing sequence, he has a falling-out with his wife, Julia, just as his other son, Ezekiel, is institutionalized for excessive self-medication.

Crucially, Jeremiah stays behind the camera through most of the family's rocky patch, remaining little more than a bystander. (His involvement in the proceedings is side-stepped in a curious but deft manner.) His proximity to his subjects, though, elicits some stunning commentary. (Julia, cogent and eloquent throughout the film, plainly says that Isaiah "became incarcerated in everything he built.") If it's unclear what Zagar's film hoped to accomplish before his father's sad burnout, the director handles this sensitive material with maturity, a sharp eye for color and composition — some of Isaiah's designs are brought to life with stop-motion animation — and just the right pitch of sentimentality.

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