Friday, June 4, 2010

Family Legacies: Jeremiah Zagar's In a Dream

Is it just my imagination or have families that are not crazy become as rare as the northern hairy-nosed wombat? Environmentalists believe only about 113 of these marsupials still exist in Australia. Dysfunctional homo sapiens, on the other hand, now number in the billions worldwide. The word ‘dysfunction’ is relative, of course. But when it comes to my relatives, there’s madness aplenty running through our intermingled bloodlines.

So, somehow it did not surprise me to learn that a distant cousin I’ve never met -- Jeremiah Zagar -- made a documentary titled In a Dream that chronicles the meltdown of his nuclear family. My maternal grandmother was a half-sister of his maternal grandfather, ancestors who both died before we were born. In the 20th century, the entire clan left Poland (just a few steps ahead of the Nazis, who would obliterate their Jewish shtetl) and landed in America. Later, my immediate kin remained in New York while his settled in Pennsylvania.

And that’s where the cinematic story unfolds, amid the amazing mosaics that Jeremiah’s dad, Isaiah, has fashioned on the outside walls of more than 100 buildings. Tourists from all over the world come to admire 40,000 square feet of these murals, collectively known as as the Philadelphia Magic Gardens, crafted from shards of pottery, tile, mirror and colored glass. Jeremiah’s wrenching portrait of the artist as a tormented man witnesses his parents’ marriage unraveling, his father’s subsequent crisis of creativity and his older brother Ezekiel’s drug addiction. The complexity of the human psyche is, as usual, beyond understanding. When Isaiah reveals he’s having an affair, his wife Julia orders him to move out. The guy then falls apart, before finally realizing she has been the glue holding him together even more firmly than the cement that binds the bits of beautiful detritus in his Magic Garden.

“I felt a transformation, a coming-of-age,” Jeremiah, 28, says about capturing the Zagar descent from domesticity into darkness and back again. “The results have been extremely positive for me and those events made my family stronger.” In his estimation, these survivors of catharsis regained happiness. My folks went through a similar personal crisis almost four decades ago but I can’t say the situation led to a better outlook. This may be due to the fact that they did not lead examined lives -- something the Zagars essentially were forced to do. Instead, a legacy of denial, secrets and lies continued to pervade my household long after I left. And I haven’t even gotten to the full-blown mental illness and psychological abuse that plagued my mother’s childhood home in the Bronx. It’s enough to make a northern hairy-nosed wombat yearn for a dose of valium.

After winning prizes at various festivals and a brief theatrical run, In a Dream was broadcast last summer on HBO. The DVD is now available. Anyone fascinated by the artistic process is likely to find the film thought-provoking, given the transcendent power of Isaiah’s mosaics and how Jeremiah describes his own calling as “the recreation of memory in a mythic frame.” Perhaps also a potential touchstone of spiritual awakening. “My father likes to say art is religion,” he explains. “About two years ago, I was in a theater. When the lights went down, it was quiet in that moment before the film starts. I thought, ‘This is like a church or a synagogue.’”

Jeremiah, a 2003 graduate of Emerson College in Boston, continues to worship at the altar of aesthetic ideas. India has played a significant part in his life ever since, at 19, he went there with boyhood pal Jeremy Yaches to make another film but instead they wound up shooting Delhi House, a short about an orphanage. Plans are on hold at the moment for a feature-length doc, Wait for Me, about a mother still holding vigil for a son who disappeared 20 years ago while visiting the subcontinent and hiking the foothills of the Himalayas. His name: John Dreyfous.

Two producers of In a Dream are Jeremiah’s colleagues on this new project: Geralyn White Dreyfous (sister-in-law of the missing man) and Ross Kauffman (co-director of the Oscar-winning Born into Brothels, for which Jeremiah cut the DVD extras). He recently edited Starved for Attention, a piece about malnutrition for Doctors Without Borders that premieres this month on the Internet -- the first of seven to do so. What goes around comes around in this filmmaking network. With four other shorts docs on his resume, the Brooklyn resident has found a hip community of like-minded achievers, many living in that New York City borough (also Isaiah’s birthplace). Jeremiah and Yaches are looking for office space there to house their production company, Herzliya Films -- named for a beach they frequented during a 1998 college study-abroad term in Israel.

And a relevant link in our shared heritage? His grandfather (and my great-uncle), Irving, became an animator for Disney back in the day. The profession could well be in Jeremiah’s genes. His first step toward the career that now envelops him may have taken place at age eight, when he was blown away by The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Terry Gilliam’s 1988 big-screen phantasmagoria. “I love being lost in the vision of something,” Jeremiah notes. For me, the vision of our meshuggah meshpucha (Yiddish for crazy extended family) always has been been enshrined in a sepia photograph of my mother as a young girl with her two siblings and that grandmother I never knew, all of them posed next to a teenage Irving and his sisters in their Polish hometown.

When I emailed that image to Jeremiah, he told me of an iconic picture long in his possession with the same exact lineup of emigres assembled in America and holding up the original shot from Poland.

Crazy wonderful.

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law and Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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