Marcus Dagan is trapped in the Shot Tower in downtown Baltimore. As he was walking by the iconic structure one day, he noticed a stain on the door that looked like a face. He went inside and climbed to the top, counting 315 stairs. But on the way down, he discovers there are more stairs than there were on the way up-infinitely more. He endlessly descends into darkness while the face on the door laughs.
This is the paranoid scenario of Dagan's short film, The Face in the Door. Dagan got the idea on an unseasonably warm day in December when he and Debra, his third wife, were strolling around town taking pictures and she noticed a spot on the tower's door that looked like a face. About six months later, it came to Dagan late at night: He needed to make a Poe-like movie about the face.
"I have this ability to imagine something, in its entirety, in a few seconds, like I did with the movie," he says in his thick New York accent cured by Marlboros and Jack Daniels. "I called the Carroll Museum and asked how many steps there are. Then I said, 'I have an idea for a movie.' She said, 'Huh, do you want to send it to me?' I said, 'Gimme an hour'-I hadn't written a word. So I sent it and she wrote back and said she was intrigued."
Dagan got all the permission and went into the tower to shoot the film, which he hopes will be selected by the Maryland Film Festival.
Dagan himself plays the man trapped in the tower, and one might suspect that he has a fear of confinement. And indeed, his peripatetic life points to a restless spirit.
Dagan, who is Jewish, spent the first years of his life in Israel until 1950, when his parents couldn't take the difficult conditions-"there was rationing and bombs going off in the street," he says. They sailed to Europe on a steamer ship and spent a couple years in various European capitals. Dagan's family eventually settled in New York, where his mother grew up.
There he began to study music, which has been the main passion of his life. But it took him a while to get entirely into it. He returned to Israel as a young man, where, he says, his first love was killed in a terrorist attack, and he joined the Israeli army as a way to "channel my anger." From there, he took a corporate marketing job in Amsterdam, where he started playing folk music on an acoustic guitar. "I met Jim Croce and played him three songs," Dagan says. "One he really liked and wanted to record. Then he died six weeks later." Nevertheless, Croce's support got Dagan to take his music seriously. He began to travel between the folk clubs in Amsterdam, Paris, and Brussels.
After he returned to New York, during a particularly chilly fall, a friend turned him onto a gig in Bermuda. His 12-string guitar was damaged en route, so he began to perform on the piano, which eventually brought Dagan to Baltimore in the 1980s to play at the 13th Floor. Dagan says that he immediately fell in love with the city as he walked up Charles Street. He began spending part of the week here and part of the week in New York, with his second wife. The first time she came to visit him in Baltimore, they were mugged behind the apartment where he was staying on St. Paul Street. "I could see the bullets in the gun," he says. "We were so lucky we weren't shot. She never came back to Baltimore until three years ago." A couple of kids and other family obligations brought Dagan back to New York most of the time, but, after a divorce, he eventually returned to Baltimore and settled here. He continued to work at the 13th Floor (where he was profiled by Max Weiss for CP in 1991)-though he would also take jobs on cruise ships and spent a few months working in Las Vegas.
Now, Dagan plays a regular Wednesday-night gig at Germano's in Little Italy and also plays at Jay's on Read, which is below the elegantly appointed apartment, full of art, which he shares with his wife Debra.
Hunched over the piano in the dark back corner of Jay's on Read, Dagan looks like a spiffed-up character from one of the less tragic Tom Waits songs. His bespoke clothes, fedora hat, and cigarette-and-whiskey trained voice are all of a different era and invested with a certain noirish romanticism. He reveres Waits and Leonard Cohen but says he has most often been compared to Neil Diamond. "I don't think I sound like Neil-and neither does he." Yes, according to Dagan, Diamond has heard him play. "I added a bit to one of his songs, and he complimented me and said that was exactly what he was thinking."
Even though Dagan hasn't had a square job since the 1970s, he still begins to feel trapped when confined to one creative outlet. He works as a photographer-he says when he was a child his mother told him he had "the eye"-and carefully tracks the number of hits his pictures get online in a logbook that has recorded over 31,000 hits. He feels it was a natural move to film, which incorporates the visual elements of photography with the rhythmic pacing of music. And though The Face in the Door has not been released yet, Dagan is ready to begin work on a second, equally claustrophobic short film, about a woman who brings a man led into a bedroom from which he cannot escape.