A Bread Factory Part One: For the Sake of Gold (2018)
A Bread Factory Part Two: Walk With Me a While (2018)
Written & Directed by Patrick Wang
This duo of films tells the sometimes quiet, sometimes loud, epic & modest tale of The Bread Factory, an arts space in the fictional town of Checkford, New York (a thinly disguised Hudson). Based on the real-life Time and Space Limited, a forty-year-old center for creative arts in upstate New York, the film attempts to tell a story both fragmented and centered around the creeping loss of these small nooks of self-expression. The primary threat in Part One is the arrival of May Ray, a Chinese performance art duo that is given tax breaks and compensation by the city government to make their new headquarters Checkford. The owners of A Bread Factory, Dorothea and Greta, must jockey the city council to keep May Ray from killing their place for local arts & performance.
Now all these sound relatively straightforward, but if A Bread Factory is anything, it is confounding, confusing, hilarious, and most certainly not what you expect. Director Patrick Wang is drawing inspiration from the filmmaking styles of people like Robert Altman and Roy Andersson. He goes so far as to frame individual vignettes in that same static, strategically lit manner that Andersson does throughout his Living trilogy. But then Wang indulges in the naturalism of actors overlapping in dialogue with a wandering camera like an Altman picture. There are sudden asides where we simply watch a dramatic performance on the stage, unconcerned with its context to the plot. A Bread Factory takes pleasure in the simple act of acting, of communicating stories and characters to an audience.
May Ray serve as a commentary on corporate interference in art. They pump in prerecorded applause during their performances to encourage the audience to love what they’re doing before the people even understand. They present shallow interactive experiences, flip-flopping things meaninglessly, like having guests walk around in hats made into shoes. The message of May Ray’s art is an absurdity, emotion has been extracted, and the art is easily consumable by the customer.
Meanwhile, A Bread Factory is putting together a performance of Euripedes’ Hecuba, starring Greta in the title role and Julie, a city councilwoman’s daughter as Polyxena, the doomed daughter of the former matriarch. Julie is also romantically involved with Max, a reporter for the local paper and the son of the teacher’s union leader fighting for funding. That’s Jason (played by Buffy’s James Marsters), who is married to Elsa, the woman who translated Hecuba for the production. Jason is also having an affair with Mavis, the mother of Julie. So you can see how complicated and crazy this story gets. Max works under the tutelage of Jan, a sharp as nails journalist who people just can’t seem to shake off a good story.
One of the underlying themes of Part One, as seen in its subtitle, is the power of money to shape an artist’s vision. The artist nomenclature covers everyone from the actors in Hecuba to the visiting filmmaker who is driven into cynicism (Janeane Garafalo) to the reporters acting as a Greek chorus to keep the town informed. This is a very human-centered story, told cheekily, that seeks to find comedy in the tragedy of the everyday.
Part Two, while a companion piece, is my favorite of the two. The victory of the first chapter slowly becomes a defeat in the second. Life in Checkford becomes even more deeply absurd. Tourists arrive and immediately burst into song, the guide making up facts whole cloth about which famous figures have lived in the town. At the popular local eatery, customers burst into tap dancing routines while swiping across their phones. This is all about performance over story really, trying to recapture the beauty of acting & dancing & singing just feel the pleasure of it.
Jan, the local reporter, has left and given the entire newspaper to the young Max. Max, not quite sure what to do, is counseled by Sir Walter and the writer & critic Jean-Marc, themselves getting over a feud that spawned from a bad review decades earlier. Max trains a group of boys to be his roving reporters and begins to find his bearings as a newsman.
The other character who comes into their own is Teresa, a waitress at a popular local spot. She’s recruited by Greta to replace Juli, who ran off with a famous actor in the close of Part One. Teresa seems nervous about performing in Hecuba but is inspired by Greta during the rehearsal. There is an absolutely brilliant extended scene during the opening night performance of the play that had me wanting to watch a full recording. The actors are so good at bringing this ancient play to life and making every emotion feel resonant and relevant.
Through this extended scene, we begin to see the way Hecuba ties back into the story of the characters in A Bread Factory. Dorothea learns that she is losing what she loves and is powerless to do anything about it. In the same way, Queen Hecuba loses her throne and forced to become a servant to the conquering Greeks. She must stand by and watch them kill her children, taking her will to live. While Checkford’s plight is not as existentially dire, it is a melancholy tragedy, a place once special and unique being slowly consumed by a rolling corporate machine that leaves everything looking manufactured and identical.
There is no need to cling too tightly to an individual scene as Wang is weaving a tapestry based more on feeling than plot. By the finale, we understand the pain of Dorothea and the way she needs Greta to soothe that frustration. There’s a sense that Checkford will continue but in an altered fashion. The old fade away, the young take their place, and we all hope something remains.