Patrick Wang’s 2011 feature-length directorial debut, In the Family, is a landmark of contemporary American indie filmmaking, a social drama that filtered its outrage at the discrimination against gays through the sorrow of a man seeking custody of the child he raised with his recently deceased partner. Wang’s latest, A Bread Factory, trades that film’s individually oriented drama for sprawling, Altmanesque comedy. Divided into two parts, one subtitled For the Sake of Gold and the other Walk with Me a While, the film is set in the fictional New York town of Checkford and centers on the Bread Factory, a local arts center that’s been run for 40 years by passionate, tough activist Dorothea (Tyne Daly) and her actress partner, Greta (Elizabeth Henry). When the local school board entertains taking away the Bread Factory’s education subsidy grant and giving it to an incoming modern art institute, Dorothea and Greta must make the case for the value of their facility to Checkford in an age where capitalist frameworks see art only in terms of return on investment.
The owners and chief artists of the FEEL Institute certainly understand the commercial aspect of contemporary art. The facility is built around the work of Chinese performance artists May Ray (Janet Hsieh and George Young), whose pretentious pieces are the sort of fodder that fuels your usual spoof of modern art. Yet where other filmmakers might mock the empty symbolism and alienating weirdness that May Ray peddles as being the unprofitable esoterica of self-conscious elites, Wang astutely pokes fun at the artists for cynically playing to the mainstream for attention, arguing that this kind of art is, in fact, commercially successful precisely because it sells an image of exclusivity that anyone can have, for a price. Wang expands on that point with caricatures of townspeople who look forward to the institute’s opening, such as a city councilor (Eugene Brell) who merrily informs Dorothea of his support of the FEEL Institute getting her subsidy, imagining with a vacant smile just how much smarter everyone in Checkford will be as a result.
The almost whimsically myopic city councilor is one of many quirky locals who filter in and out of A Bread Factory‘s background to unexpectedly take center stage. Throughout its four-hour running time, the two-part film’s attention shifts purposefully and in arrhythmic fashion from one person to the next with each pan or zoom of the camera. Jordan (Janeane Garofalo), a filmmaker, is initially glimpsed on the margins of the Bread Factory’s hustle and bustle only to later be seen riotously berating a Q&A audience for their terrible questions and screaming at children in an art class to make movies with passion. Then there’s Elsa (Nana Visitor), the translator for an upcoming Bread Factory production of Euripedes’s Hecuba. She’s at first a marginal presence in the film’s narrative, a source of amusement for the way she skittishly denies that she isn’t a real writer. Eventually, though, she becomes the subject of one of the film’s most moving subplots as she frets over her failing marriage to her cheating husband (James Marsters) and her increasing alienation from her son (Zachary Sayle), an intern at the local newspaper.
The web of characters grows increasingly tangled across A Bread Factory as more and more people get sucked into the orbit of Dorothea’s militant campaign to save her arts center. And as the characters’ relationships become knottier, the film become funnier. In Walk with Me a While, art breaks free of the quaint Bread Factory and trendy FEEL Institute, manifesting itself on the streets of Checkford, with people beginning to act out performatively at the drop of a hat. In one scene, the finger-tapping of distracted phone users prompts individuals to start tap dancing. In another, characters begin to reminisce about old times in conversations that gradually slide into theatrical monologues, with conversational tones giving way to declamatory statements about emotions and memories. Wang’s particular skill as a filmmaker is his ability to approach well-worn narrative devices from fresh angles, and here he manages to defend the importance of art, attack the neoliberal devastation of cultural liberalism, and argue for the renewed public commitment to the arts from a wryly comic perspective that eschews sentimentality.
When Wang does get serious about art, he films it with a sense of awe that celebrates the creative skills of Checkford’s populace. This mostly comes out in scenes that see these individuals acting on stage, with the otherwise ambulatory, forever roaming camera locking into place in a master shot that gradually pushes forward to frame the actors in close-ups that brim with appreciation for the talent on display. This happens early in an audition for Hecuba where an aging thespian, Sir Walter (Brian Murray in his final role), at first rambles irritably before the old actorly instinct kicks in and he transitions into a monologue filled with an aching sense of regret.
And in the film’s most traditional-seeming subplot, local waitress Teresa (Jessica Pimentel) is convinced by Greta to try out for the part of Hecuba’s sacrificial daughter, Polyxena. At first, Teresa cannot grasp the archaic dialogue and the discomfort of performing, but when Greta sidesteps instructions for simply performing her own tragic monologue as Hecuba, a stunned Teresa suddenly slides without warning into an understanding, fluid performance, matching the seasoned actress’s commitment and emotion. The climactic opening-night performance of the play may ultimately mean little for the fate of the Bread Factory, but the sight of Teresa fully inhabiting her role makes a more succinct, powerful argument for the building’s good in the community than any of Dorothea’s proselytizing.