She left him an empty kitchen.
My first internship in college was at a local arts museum—unpaid, experiential, and portfolio building. The establishment pretty much had a single full-time position and as artistic director she did pretty much everything from organizing exhibits, hiring community program teachers, stretching a miniscule state-funded and donation-driven budget, and whatever else you could think and not think an institution like this needed. My main job for credit was to design the show postcards and update the website, but being there also meant cleaning, mounting canvases, and serving wine at openings. It was a communal effort with semester-by-semester turnaround that she had to corral to survive. And it did despite so many high-tech alternatives and dwindling resources. So I felt Patrick Wang‘s A Bread Factory deep in my bones.
The countless women in arts spaces like this who taught Wang throughout his own youth inspired him to tell their story. The two who worked at the center that invited him to present his first feature film in the Hudson Valley—and where he would then film this two-part humanist epic—reminded him of their importance for future generations simply by refusing to disappear in the face of outside pressure and the general dismissal of the arts as a money-waster whose merits can’t be defined by profits alone. From their archetype were born Dorothea (Tyne Daly) and Greta (Elisabeth Henry-Macari), the lifeblood behind a forty-year old haven for the fictional Checkford, NY’s youthful dreamers seeking an escape from the rapidly deteriorating world of greed and opportunism surrounding them.
Part One focuses on what happens when a new hip “idea” of art-for-profit enters a sleepy environment that’s grown complacent with its subtle yet successful enterprises. We see the many empty chairs when a famous director is brought to town to discuss her work (Janeane Garofalo‘s Jordan) and listen as the children in workshops admit they’re only there because their parents had to find affordable daycare alternatives. This town then ignores the great things the titular Bread Factory provides while exploiting its employees to their benefit without caring about potential consequences or epiphanies. So when the famed May Ray duo (Janet Hsieh and George Young) arrives with its glamour, esoteric nonsense, and promise to put Checkford on the international map, the school board readies to transfer its budget.
Suddenly the forgotten corners of integrity must rise up to look into the too-fast progression. Newspaper editor Jan (Glynnis O’Connor) digs into the financials to see the unsurprising conflicts of interest behind those voting to ostensibly shutdown Dorothea and Greta’s cultural haven. Board member Mavis (Nan-Lyn Nelson) has to maneuver behind the scenes to help combat the payoffs May Ray’s consultant Karl (Trevor St. John) is obviously conducting by leveraging the good will of those in a position to understand The Bread Factory’s importance. And both Dorothea and Greta must hunt down the others to try and change their minds only to hear the out-of-touch indifference of, “You’ll be fine. You’ve survived tough times before.” Success by the skin of their teeth rewarded with ignorant shrugs.
While this through-line of whether or not The Bread Factory will retain the budget they deserve is the main dramatic thrust, however, Wang has sprinkled in so much more around the periphery. There’s the inkling of an affair (see James Marsters‘ Jason and Mavis), the tense familial squabbles surrounding parental discontent and ambitious children (the latter involving a romance between Zachary Sayle‘s journalism intern Max and Erica Durham‘s aspiring actress Julie), and an eccentric cast of characters spanning the earnest Greek translator Elsa (Nana Visitor), precocious projectionist Simon (Keaton Nigel Cooke), and enigmatic Sandra (Martina Arroyo). It all adds to the entertainment value of visual and situational comedy gold as well as the heartbreaking emotional resonance of familial strife and unspoken sacrifice. The authenticity on display is incomparable.
Part Two depicts the aftermath of the school board vote, but not how you may assume. What that conflict gave the citizens of Checkford was a new lease on what’s important to them removed from the desires of a nation saying they must keep pace. A new generation is pushed into roles left open by the old in order to rise to the occasion of what can be accomplished rather than what can be won by compromising one’s values. How else could May Ray’s biggest fan (Max) become the man to dismantle their house of cards? How else would a local waitress like Teresa (Jessica Pimentel) open her eyes to the power of performance and the cathartic fulfillment of art as more than simply decorative frivolity?
Unfortunately, while the townsfolk become enlightened towards what the outside world threatens to consume, the latter has already infiltrated their home. Wang ingeniously shows this invading force on the coattails of May Ray’s post-modernist promise with an over-the-top performance-based aspect of its own. Newcomers arrive with choreographed musical numbers. A new tech company’s employees start wordlessly and rudely jumping lines with an air of entitlement. And young men and women lost to the allure of distractions and pragmatism tap dance their way through life while swiping their phones, too busy to stop and experience anything with their own two eyes. It’s therefore no surprise when Wang counters their jarringly artificial vignettes with Greta onstage as a grieving Hecuba in Euripedes’ play—her turn unforgettably raw and inspiring.
Wang isn’t mocking modern art by using May Ray as a punch line. It’s the feverish impulse of audiences embracing their oddity simply because of the self-importance bestowed upon them for their trouble that he’s satirizing. It’s this desire to champion the “other” as exotic while also vilifying alternate forms—see an affinity for China as the future and the reprehensible character assassination of Mariano’s (Jonathan Iglesias) Argentinean—that he seeks to place in the spotlight. Why is one seen as better than the other? Money, influence, and press releases. China promises progress while Latin America is denigrated as the Stone Age. And we as a populace lap it up to regurgitate sound bytes that never had basis in fact (Jan schooling Max on “fake news” is wonderful).
There’s so much of this type of timely social commentary throughout both parts of A Bread Factory that you almost can’t process it all without a subsequent viewing. So much of what happens is also left open-ended (the aforementioned affair, Simon’s unspoken sacrifice, and Jan’s disappearance), the sprawling consequences of such events that move far past their participants more important than the events themselves. And nothing Wang includes is without duality whether funny anecdotes from Sir Walter (Brian Murray) and critic Jean Marc (Philip Kerr) or the poignancy of tragedy scarring Pat (Kit Flanagan) and all those touched by her loss. Each speaks about just how inseparable art and life is—the ways we use it to heal, grow, and see. Art is that which makes us human.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.
courtesy of In the Family