Sprawling over four hours, Patrick Wang’s two-part film, “A Bread Factory,” is a marvelous yet modest epic — an expansive, plain-spoken view of what happens when heartfelt art-making head-butts against cultural commodification, and the fabric of local community unravels.
Wang’s utterly compelling but understated movie zeroes in on the fate of an arts center in the fictional upstate New York town of Checkford. (Each film is presented as a free-standing entitity but are best viewed together in succession.)
The Bread Factory — so named for the converted commercial bakery that houses it — is Checkford’s creative soul, even if attendance at its performances is scant. For 40 years, it has screened art movies, presented poetry readings and chamber music concerts, hosted an opera troupe and a theatre company, and taught myriad after-school arts classes to children who go home inspired to tell their parents that even a chicken dinner must be great art, not just good — “care for it, cry for it.”
At the Bread Factory, art is reciprocal, created by local artists for locals, part of a continuous exchange of shared values.
The first film, “Part One: For the Sake of Gold,” introduces fierce, strong-willed Dorothea (Tyne Daly) as the center’s director and her long-time partner, the softer Greta (Elisabeth Henry), an actress and the Bread Factory’s resident grande dame. The pair is in the midst of working on a production of Euripides’ “Hecuba,” a new English translation by local Checkford scholar Elsa (Nana Visitor).
But the comfortably eccentric business of the Bread Factory is threatened when Checkford’s school board, from whom the center receives most of its funding, plans to redirect its grantmaking to a new arts endeavor launched by the slick performance art duo from China known as May Ray.
In utterly vapid performances, May Ray represent the sensationalism and the hype of art world celebrity that increasingly dominates the current cultural agenda even in the smallest towns. (Marfa, anyone?)
Art is a one-way transaction for May Ray. What they offer is a product (or experience) to be consumed. And they get the brunt the film’s satire. (May is played by Janet Hsieh, Ray by George Young.) After participating in a predictably absurd May Ray performance that asks the audience to walk a mile wearing hats as shoes, participants are sold a souvenir photo of their own feet.
(Though Wang never mentions it explicitly in any interviews, the film was shot in Hudson, New York, where performance artist Marina Abramović made a well-publicized attempt to build her Marina Abramović Institute — and failed.)
Wang’s hypnotic real-time pacing results in extended and achingly wonderful solo performances. While wearing a samovar as a hat, visiting actress Tessa (Elaine Bromka) performs a five-minute pseudo Chekhov monologue about selling her Uncle Vanya — a theatrical deviation that affectionately encompasses myriad inside jokes.
It’s these leisurely narrative roundabouts that give the films a meticulously hand-crafted feel — every awkward shot, each shabby detail, and every seemingly peripheral action is carefully considered. Every episode of the four-hour film’s languid intricacies is shown to be necessary.
Wang echoes the kind of slow, free-flowing conversations and garrulous gatherings that are hallmarks of the films of Robert Altman and Richard Linklater. And like Altman and Linklater, Wang savors the subtle rhythms of quotidian moments.
In the more surreal, and complex, “Part Two: Walk With Me A While,” the fate of the Bread Factory is a faît accompli even if it seems as though things are as they always were.
New economic and cultural forces are too strong for Checkford and the Bread Factory, even if it not specifically in the form of May Ray. Indeed if the boundary between art and life is always slippery, it’s now become the purveyance of the voracious forces of capitalism and technology.
Dorothea is still at the helm of the Bread Factory as its production of “Hecuba” gets ready for its debut. But Checkford’s weekly newspaper is abandoned by its editor and is left to be run by its public school students. (Successfully, it should be added.)
An a cappella quartet of young real estate agents follow Dorothea, imploring her to cash out on property she owns. Twenty-somethings break into tap dance in the local diner yet never break eye contact with their smart phones. A group of tourists armed with selfie sticks pop up around town in musical theatre moments, led by a tour guide who regales them with fake “facts.”
The Houston born and raised Wang trained as an economist at MIT and worked as such before venturing into filmmaking. (His feature film directorial debut, “In the Family,” netted a number of awards and strong reviews.)
Much of “A Bread Factory” is about the nature and importance of art, and how community arts organizations connect otherwise unconnected people. Yet the economics of art — the way the power of money shapes art — is never out of Wang’s sights, and in a way “A Bread Factory” acknowledges the reality that some kinds of evolution are unavoidable.
Nevertheless, the significance of art in the everyday life of a community is what Wang’s film ultimately reveres.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Jean-Marc (Philip Kerr), a retired Pulitzer Prize-winning critic who floats in the Bread Factory’s orbit, yet another delightful Checkford character.
“They once baked bread here, but now we live in an age of crumbs. But what they make of these crumbs is miraculous, and we are lucky to have them.”