Thursday, April 11, 2019

SFFILM FESTIVAL 2019 / THE SAVAGESThe Evening Class Interview With Laura Linney

Photo courtesy of SFFILM.
In addition to appearing at SFFILM's opening night premiere of the Netflix limited series Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City—wherein she reprises her role as Mary Ann Singleton—Laura Linney is being fêted the following evening, Thursday, April 11, 2019, with an onstage conversation and tribute screening of Tamara Jenkins' The Savages (2007), wherein her characterization of Wendy Savage garnered Linney an Oscar®-nomination.


As observed by Dennis Harvey in his informative online career overview "Raising the Game of Everyone Around Her: Laura Linney": "The meticulous care with which she illuminates complicated dramatic personae is ideally illustrated in Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages (2007).... In its way a barbed companion piece to You Can Count on Me, this more acerbic yet bittersweet sibling saga co-stars the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as brother Jon to her sister Wendy, two Savages approaching middle age, both working (more or less) in theater—though in that, as in most things, they’ve fallen considerably short of their own expectations.

"They’re brought together by the news that their father Lenny (Philip Bosco) has lost a partner, is losing his home, and may have dementia. This is even more of a problem than it sounds, because Lenny abandoned his children long ago. Forced to take on care of a parent they were estranged from, the younger Savages react in different ways: Jon with droll but pitiless pragmatism, Wendy with a not-necessarily-helpful mix of guilt and neediness.

"She is the kind of deeply flawed character at which Linney so often excels, bringing warmth and humor to a figure whose actions are sometimes indefensible. (Not only does Wendy steal pharmaceuticals from a dead woman and sleep with a married man, she fibs about both a cancer diagnosis and a Guggenheim fellowship.)"

Back in the Fall of 2007, Director/screenwriter Tamara Jenkins and actress Laura Linney accompanied The Savages when the film screened as the opening night feature for the 30th Mill Valley Film Festival, at which time I was offered the chance to interview Linney, one of my favorite actresses, alongside one of my favorite film writers: Omar Moore of The Popcorn Reel. It's hard to believe that was nearly twelve years ago; but now seemed as good a time as any to revisit that conversation.

* * * 

Omar Moore: There's a lot of things to say about this film; it's a wonderful piece of work and, of course, you're one of the hardest working people in the business these days and for the last few years. You come to a point where you get immersed in a lot of characters; but, has there ever been a character that you've been so immersed in that you actually think, "Wow. This character could actually help me to become a better person in my real life"?

Laura Linney: They all help me. I'm fortunately one of those people who's able to work and then go home. Though I keep working at home. When you're working on a film it's non-stop because you're constantly simmering, ideas are constantly coming to you, you're daydreaming and fantasizing about the character and circumstance, maybe something technical or maybe something about their background; but, I think I learn from all of them. The joy of being a perpetual student, which is what I treasure the most about what I get to do.

Guillén: I'm a great fan of your work and have watched nearly every movie you've been in since Tales of the City. These characters that you've embodied as an actor, do you carry them around with you? They're such real people. It sounds like you have the professional skill to detach yourself from your assignments, but I was wondering if they don't pop up while you're shopping for produce in the grocery store?

Linney: [Laughs.] No, they don't actually. It's fun to think back on the work and try to remember what [was involved]. Claire from Jindabyne is so completely different from the girl in Love, Actually, who's so completely different from the Mystic River woman. It's fun to think back on them. They're like people I've met in my past.

Guillén: I ask because—knowing you were returning to San Francisco, the setting for Tales of the City—I was wondering if Mary Ann Singleton was coming up?

Linney: If there is a character and an experience that I carry around with me, that I enjoy carrying around with me, it's that one. A lot of that has to do with that being an extremely important experience for me. It was the first thing I did on film in front of the camera where I was on from beginning to end. I learned an enormous amount. The friendships I made during that are lifelong friendships. I consider Armistead Maupin one of the most important people in my life. My dear friend Stanley DeSantis—who played Norman Neal Williams and who, unfortunately, is no longer with us—was one of my best friends in the world. It was an extremely important very happy time and I loved playing her. There was a sense of joy and excitement about it and a lightness, which I treasure. Tales is something that I don't want to let go of.

Moore: In The Savages you play a writer who, I guess, undergoes a certain sense of self-delusion and perhaps also tries to find herself in many different ways but does so through a variety of unfortunate circumstances with some characters that she deals with….

Linney: She's a mess. She's not your typical protagonist.

Moore: Do you try to find different ways to look at this character? You might look at a script—of this film for example—but how many different ways do you try out a character before you even rehearse? Conceptually, as you read the script as an actor, and you look at your character jump off the page, are there any things prior to rehearsal that you do in order to really gear yourself up for this character?

Linney: Oh, of course. There's an enormous amount of preparation. In this situation there was. There's not always in every movie. With films that have spectacular scripts, those are the ones where you sit with the script the most because you know there's so much in there and—like a really good detective—you've got to find it. You know it's in there somewhere. It's maybe not in the script but it's in you somewhere and—through the script—you'll be prompted to think about things and you'll follow a line of thought and then you'll get to an answer, which will illuminate a lot about a character. Also, I had this script for a while. It didn't get made right away and there was a time when we all thought Phil Hoffman and I were going to be replaced by other people. Thankfully, for us, the movie then went to another company and Tamara Jenkins stuck by the two of us. I'm extremely grateful to her and to the producers because they could have had it made by other people. It's almost one of my favorite parts of the process, that sort of hunting and finding the answers. You're like, "Why? Why does this happen? Why?" And then really finding an answer. Not the why of just because she does this; but to find the real origin of behavior.

Guillén: I'm glad to hear you say that because it's such a well-written script, there are so many great lines in it, but what was really expressive to me was the behavior of these people. Your exercising in front of the television speaks volumes about your character's aspirations, how she's always trying.

 Linney: Isn't that funny?

Guillén: So this eloquent behavior, these behaviorisms, did you work them out with Tamara? How do you come to those bits?

Linney: No. That's my own work and it develops over time. It's influenced by the other actors; certainly my relationship to Phil. He'll say something that will affect you and you respond to it physically in a way and the characteristics will develop. There's different phases. There's the script stuff, which I sort of love because it's private and you usually have time and it's your own personal connection to the script; the real intimate work that you do just with your self and the script. Then, there's the phase where you're putting everything together. Decisions are being made about costume, look, design, those things, and that's another layer that will influence you. Then, there are the other actors, which is the greatest of all. Everything will contribute and effect. Everything will have a cause and effect. Everything that comes into will add on; they'll be another layer and another layer. Hopefully, you get to a point where the script starts to work on you. You are no longer working on the script. The script is working on you. And it's a fantastic moment. It happens in theatre a lot; the moment where it lifts off and the play will work on you. Then things start to really gel and deep connections are made that you're not generating, that just sort of grow and happen. That's difficult to do on film sets because you just don't have the time if you're working with an actor and a script that is accessible and rich and giving and complex. That's when the pinball machine really starts to go. [Laughs.] Things start clicking and flashing….

Guillén: [In my best impersonation of a pinball machine] Ding ding ding ding! 

Linney: Yeah, it's just fun. It's a team sport in many ways. While I was certainly never an athlete, I can sort of imagine that there are those moments in soccer, in basketball, in football, in synchronized swimming, whatever, where there's a collective moment that pushes everybody forward.

Moore: Philip Bosco and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in this film are both tremendous as well. There is one scene that's really remarkable—without giving it away—where you're all in the car and there's a fight going on between you and Bosco where he does this thing….

Linney: Yes, isn't that wonderful? It's a beautiful moment, isn't it?

Moore: Talk a bit more about your collaboration with Philip Bosco and how that all came about for you and how much time you had to spend with him? 

Linney: Philip Bosco is a legend in the Broadway theatre. He is a colossal figure for actors in New York. You can't say enough about Philip Bosco. When I was growing up, I saw him. I grew up in Manhattan and I went to the theatre a lot as a kid and I saw him in a lot of plays and he was just this bigger-than-life character, even to the point where—I don't know if you remember there was a chocolate syrup called Bosco?—and I called it Phil Bosco milk. That's how much a part of my life he was without even knowing him when I was little. So it was wonderful to get to have him play this larger-than-life imposing figure who I knew very well but was very distant. I didn't know Phil Bosco from Adam. As a human being I'd met him maybe once or twice but I had seen him for years and I was a fan. Phil Hoffman would probably feel the same way. So both of us had this sense of this man who has impacted both of our lives and for whom we have tremendous respect but don't really know. Bosco was fantastic. The man is happy to be there. He's always in a good mood. We were three theatre actors hanging on set. It was fun. There was the occasional dirty joke.

Guillén: I was just telling Omar before we came in here that I had just seen the film a few days ago at a press screening and I had just come in from Boise, Idaho where my sister and I had just put our mother into an assisted living facility and—though I had heard of the success of The Savages at Sundance—I had not yet researched the reviews and didn't really know what the film was about. So I came into the movie thinking, "Oh good, I'll be taken away from my family issues…"

 Linney: And there it is.

Guillén: There it is; but, what I wanted to say was what I appreciated so much about the film—having just gone through this fire myself—was the film's strong humor. I phoned my sister up after watching the film to tell her about it. The jokes we made about our mother during the process….

Linney: God bless, you have to! It's to take the curse of the dread off it. Doing this film, and also my age, it's made me think a lot about what's ahead and what I'm responsible for. There are several people who I will be responsible for, helping them through the end of their life, and it's a privilege.

Guillén: There was some commentary after Sundance that several of the films featured at Sundance addressed the theme of parental aging, intimately linked to an aging process among the filmmaking community.

Linney: I think so. Yes. Absolutely. It certainly made me think about getting papers in order for everybody so we can do it now while everyone can still….

Guillén: Crack a joke?

Linney: Yeah, crack a joke and honestly just prepare for it. I don't want to feel guilty. And I don't want them to feel unloved or deprived. I don't know what will happen with my parents or where they'll end up or even if they'll be lucky enough to reach that age where they'll be put into [a facility] like that. A lot of people just drop dead out of nowhere. So it's sort of the blessing of being able to live that long and the curse of the reality of the world in which we live, where people live far away from each other and lives are not intertwined the way that they used to be. They're difficult issues and people don't really talk about it. There is that unspoken thing when someone says, "I just had to put my father in a home." That's all people say and it reverberates intensely throughout the room because people know how difficult that is. And then the things you find. I don't know if you'd had to clean out a house but the delicious things you find that were left behind! Whoo-hoooooooo! [Laughter.] It can be so funny. The things you learn; it's just delicious and fantastic.

Moore: Within the context of your question, Michael, in American society there really is a much more cynical and, unfortunately, a more unpleasant outlook towards people as they age. When you go into other cultures in Africa or Asia, the elderly are respected on high. In this film there's a certain sensitivity and it's textured. The film is not being played in the way that a lot of films might look at the elderly. It's something that's really very very refreshing and even for the characters—the character you play and the character Phillip plays—there's a sense of hope that these characters are trying to travel towards. Was there anything in the collaboration with Tamara Jenkins that dictated this? Was there something in the script that was different from the way it felt at the end? When you first read the script, was there anything in the drafts that you read that changed from the actual finished product?

Linney: The script was almost in word perfect condition when we started and almost in word perfect condition from the time I was handed the script, which was almost a year and a half before we started filming. She had been working and working and working on that. It's also an unusual situation because it's also these people who are going through this experience. It's not like normal people going through this experience, which would then make it a Lifetime movie. It's these people. It's this trio. This wild trio of people going through this experience. And with a parent who did not treat them well. What do you do with that? I find that topic really interesting. How do you handle that? How do you handle a parent who didn't treat you well who you then are responsible for? There's that line where Phillip says to me, "Y'know, we're taking better care of him than he ever did of us." They have to for their own sense of self and for their sense of character. It's interesting when you treat people better than they deserve. What is that instinct in someone's character to do that?

Guillén: That hit me because I actually said that about my mom. But it also brought into focus this process of family crisis where you get pulled back into the family to do the things you need to do that actually betters you as a person.

Linney: And it's interesting to find yourself sliding back into a fourteen-year-old mind. Or you become twelve. Where you're surrounded by certain people where the dynamics and the relationships that are calcified at an early age that you try to break out of and grow out of but the core of it never really changes.

Guillén: One of the things I admired about Tamara's script was how she inferred commentary without voicing it. For example, that final scene where your character's play is on the stage and you're mixing the magical realism with the literalism, the audience realizes that obviously Phil's character had been beaten by his father as a child and that his strategy for survival was to disembody himself. It enrichened our understanding of his behavior throughout the movie.

Linney: That's right. That is, in some ways, the result of someone who's been working on a script for a long time. There's not one moment that hasn't been obsessed over and thought of and cared for. There are connections in this movie that I'm not even aware of yet. People will bring things up to me and I'll think, "Oh God, I didn't even think about that." When clearly it's all there.

Guillén: You've mastered these portrayals of siblings. You Can Count On Me hit us by storm and then you've followed suit with The Savages, which only highlights that you don't see complex portrayals of brother-sister siblings that often. Do you come from a family of many brothers and sisters?

Linney: No, I don't have a brother. I have a younger sister who I adore. She's my half-sister. We didn't grow up together but we're very close.

Guillén: All the more remarkable that you've skillfully captured that dynamic.

Linney: These two jobs You Can Count On Me and The Savages, as far as the quality of the work is concerned, are two of the things I'm proudest of. Certainly my relationship with Mark Ruffalo and Phil Hoffman are two that I absolutely value.

Guillén: The best brothers you've never had.

Linney: Best fictional brothers. It's funny because a lot of people were like, "Well, do you really want to do another brother-sister movie?" I thought, "What does that mean? I can never be another wife in another movie? I can never be another girlfriend? I can never be another lawyer in a movie?" It was so funny for people to say that to me. I was like, "What are you talking about?"

Guillén: Boy, am I glad I didn't say that! [Laughter.]

Linney: I understand it in some viewpoint but then I was like, "Well, if you really think that logic through, it's absurd." Besides, they're totally different relationships.

[At this point the publicist stuck her head in and signaled we had a couple of more minutes and Laura smiled and cooed, "Give them ten more minutes. I like them. Give them ten." We all laughed.]

Moore: I wanted to ask you about Jindabyne. It's a tremendous piece of work.

Linney: Thank you.

Moore: When you're in a different location like Australia and you have these kinds of things going on in the film and you tap into these dynamics, what are you driving into? The whole racial aspect of the film, what kind of things do you as a performer draw upon? Real life? Your own experiences? How do you mine that as a performer in a film like Jindabyne?

Linney: That's a very good question in relationship to that movie. There are many different currents to that film. There is the place itself, southeastern Australia, which is an incredibly powerful place. I had never been to Australia before. I had never felt nature that was that powerful and I lived part of the time in the Rocky Mountains. I'm not just a city girl although I grew up in Manhattan. The power of that country. The vibrations of the nature. It's a whole other thing. So there's that element, number one.

We were also shooting in a location where the town was submerged in water. Just that can give you pause to think about. That character, I found her really interesting. A woman who had postpartum depression to such a degree that she left. What must that be? If you have to ask, that was a situation where I had to ask, "Why?" Other than just accepting a generalized reason, I really had to look at what is postpartum? What does it do? How bad does it get? What is it? And why would she leave? Then I realized she left because she was scared she was going to kill her kid. She was scared she was going to hurt her child. Just exploring all of that and being a foreigner in a foreign land, marrying another foreigner, it was so layered and everyone was so haunted. It was all so visceral and thick and another script that was beautifully written. So where I "got it" was from all over the place really, I guess, but it was very deep, emotionally it was very demanding. It was very murky.

But, at the same time, it was a one-shot film. Everything was in one take. There was only natural light. Days went fast and easy and breezy. Ray Lawrence was fantastic and we all had a jolly good ol' time doing this very intense film that dealt with murder and race and home and emotional politics and disappointment and shattered expectations and youth. Those children were just delicious. I loved those kids. My God, did I love that little boy. Looking at that little face and thinking about coming back and the guilt of knowing whatever was possessing her at the time that scared her so badly that she had to abandon them and then have no one understand what she was going through. For Americans, mental health is here if you need it. It's accepted. Should be required. I just found the whole thing so interesting. It was a fecund script. It was teeming with stuff.

Guillén: Viscerality is clearly an adjective that can be applied to many of your performances. Do you have a meter when you're reading a script? Is it viscerality that appeals to you? The idea that you can take an unattractive figure and find what will physically make them acceptable to an audience, perhaps even loveable? Can you tell that when you're reading a script?

Linney: What I clue into first and foremost is: "Is this actable?" I've said this a lot but many scripts are not written now to be acted. The agenda behind the script is to be greenlit, to be financed. They're written for people who are not trained to read a script. That's not a criticism; that's just a reality. When those scripts get to actors who are trained and are looking for certain things, who have requirements of scripts to help them, and it's not there, then you have to do an enormous amount of work and 90% of the time the movie's not going to work. It might work financially but it's not going to be a satisfying experience. It's going to be hard.

So if you have a script that's actually actable, then you know there are places to go, there's things to unearth, dynamics that are there, the narrative's going to work, you can see it. It's the equivalent of an architect looking at a blueprint. They can see the angles of the house and it's just on the paper. They can feel the wood even though it just says, "This will be cedar." It's like a chess player who can see five steps ahead. There's something that actors have, who work in this way, and we can see it or we can tell, "This scene is off and I need it to be different so that the scene down there will make sense." That's fun. Tinkering that way is really fun. I just did this huge mini-series for HBO and we were constantly figuring out how to reshape and what did we need and—if we do this in episode two—will it pay off in episode six?


Guillén: Those are the brilliant bits in The Savages. I loved the scene in the airplane where you're guiding your father back to the bathroom and his pants fall and it's your fault because, earlier, you took away his suspenders!

Linney: That's right.

Guillén: And you had that guilty realization on your face: "I'm trying to help and I'm completely messing things up."

Linney: That's Tamara. That was all Tamara.

Guillén: Well, you had a little something to do with it too….

Linney: Well, you're aware, but you have to place it, you have to pitch it. It has to be the correct pitch. The right note has to be played. You can't do it too high or too low. A perfect example, Mystic River. It was a small part with this thing in the end. In some ways it was like, if you envisioned the thing at the end as being a blob of paint, I had to take the paintbrush and go, "This way." So that it would build. You'd see more and more paint as you got into it. There had to be hints throughout the rest of the movie so that when that monologue hit, the audience was prepared for it subconsciously and then it would hit hard. It couldn't just come out of nowhere. It had to be set up. The fun for me was, "Okay, how do I set this up?" I'm in the first scene of the movie or one of the first scenes of the movie and you don't know who the hell she is really until that scene and then it all becomes exposed. But how do you set it up that way? That's what's fun.

Moore: But is that always going to be in a subtle fashion that you have to set it up?

Linney: You can't tip your hand. I mean, you could tip your hand if you wanted to. You could tip your hand from the very first scene but then that monologue's not going to land the way it's supposed to. It's not going to have the sense of surprise.

Moore: But in any situation—whether it's Mystic River or any other—you would obviously have to do it in a subtle way as a performer, would you not? Or would that depend on the character, or the situation that you want to lead to at the end?

Linney: It depends on what story you're telling. Story first. That's the first priority.

Guillén: Here's a broad question for you then: in telling the stories, what varies between telling the story on stage and telling a story on film? Because you're adept at both.

Linney: They're completely different. The most important difference is just the sense of time. You have much more control in the theatre. It's much more intimate. There are things that will only happen in the theatre because of time. You can't push it. Only time will deepen a relationship. Only time will let language fly in a certain way. Only the ritual and the repetition will make something grow. It's like a slow cooking stew. Eat it at day two and it ain't going to be as good as at day seven. It's just not. There's nothing you can do. You can't force water to boil. You have to earn it. That really has to be earned, gently and consistently in a very focused way and then it will start to go. With film, you're never really going to get that. You can get a semblance of that and at times—if you connect with your actors and if you connect with the script—then you can go deeper than most films. But a lot of times you feel like you're sliding on ice.

Guillén: So you would prefer to remain a stage actress?

Linney: No. The answer used to be yes, by the way. The more film I've done—which is a big surprise to me….

Guillén: Not to me.

Linney: Well, it was to me—the more I enjoy it because of everything we've discussed; the challenge of it is huge. It's amazing to me when any good movie gets made. It's miraculous.

Guillén: Would you say your theatre training helped you develop the ability to come onto a film set and go deeper quicker? In contrast to an actor, let's say, who's not had the benefit of stage training?

Linney: I don't think so because I've seen actors who have only done film who are unbelievable.

Guillén: They just go right there?

Linney: Oh yeah. Look at someone like Jodie Foster. I know that Jodie Foster knows things in her bones about film that I will never know just because it's what she's been doing since she was small. Her whole professional life has been about film and, similarly, there are things that I know about theatre that other people will never know, just because I grew up in it and I've been around it my whole life. I'm fluent in the language of theatre. [Laughs.] But as the years go on, the more film I do, the more I enjoy how challenging it is and I'm hoping that I'm getting a little better at it. I still feel like I have so much more to learn. There are things I still struggle with that I know I need to work on and the only way you can work on it is by doing it.

Moore: You talk about struggling, and you talk about how you don't necessarily take all these characters home with you, but do you find yourself being more critical about your own performances on film vs. theatre?

Linney: Well, in the theatre I don't watch myself. When you're bad, you just feel bad, no matter where you are. It doesn't matter if you're on TV or the radio. When you feel bad, you just feel terrible. And then there are these wonderful moments where you realize, "Oh, I've outgrown a bad habit." That's really nice. Then there's another bad habit, but you've gotten rid of one. You've outgrown one and maybe grown into another one.

Guillén: Could you be specific about that? What was a specific bad acting habit you've grown out of?

Linney: Fears or blocks. There was a time when I was still a student in school when emotional access was not easy for me. I would force it and it was terrible and I knew it was terrible and I felt like a fraud. Something clicked at one point and now it's not an issue.

Guillén: From my perspective that's one of the things I love about your performances, or your choice of roles: you're fearless. You aren't afraid of how fallible some of these people are that you're portraying. It's not like you—as an actress—have to be loved for the characters you play.

Linney: No. That's one of the tenets of the theatre. Correct. I don't feel that's my responsibility. I feel my responsibility is to tell the best story that I can tell and to fulfill the desires of the writer, the director, and what I feel the character wants. The likeability thing is just a different way to go. I don't find it interesting. For me, I find it boring. There are some actors who have whole careers built on that and they're wonderful at it and I love to watch them do it. I find it refreshing and delicious and sparkly. I love it! But I wouldn't know how to do that. I wouldn't be any good at it either.

Moore: Wouldn't likeability compromise you as an actor?

Linney: Absolutely. It can. If that's what you're thinking about. I can remember that there was a movie I did early on and I was so shocked because the director came up to me at the end of the movie and said, "Y'know, she's not going to be liked. She's not likeable." I was like, "What do you mean? She wasn't likeable from day one and now we're at the end of the movie and you want her to be likeable?! Are you insane?" I was like, "Don't worry about it. It's okay. She doesn't have to be likeable."

Guillén: The only reason it even crosses my consciousness is because Mary Ann Singleton was nothing but likeable. She was like a beloved sister.

Linney: But she should have been!

Guillén: But by contrast, I didn't like you very much in Jindabyne.

Linney: Understandably. That's complex.

Guillén: In The Savages, I think you're so messed up but I love you. [Laughter.]

Linney: She's so fun because she's so narcissistic but she has great empathy. She flipflops back and forth. This topic came up in an interview with Tom Wilkinson who I've worked with several times. I was reading the paper and there was an article about him and he was talking about the exact same thing. He was saying, "With parts that are supposed to be likeable, I'll play as likeable. But if they're not supposed to be likeable, I'm not going to be likeable." Besides, it doesn't work if you go against the grain or the truth of what something is trying to be, if you try to manipulate it and change it, it just doesn't work.

Moore: Can I ask you the question that you've probably been asked a thousand times?

Linney: A thousand and one. Which one is it?

Moore: What might you be working on next?

Linney: Oh, that's not a bad one, that's easy! There are two things that have been completed: City of Your Final Destination—which is a Merchant Ivory film—and then I've just done this huge HBO series on John Adams. Next, I'm going to sit down for a bit and hopefully do a play in the Spring.

[Originally published on November 28, 2007]

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

SFFILM FESTIVAL 2019 / OPENING NIGHT: ARMISTAUD MAUPIN'S TALES OF THE CITY

I worked as a dishwasher / busboy / waiter at Fanny's Cabaret in 1978 when I was a young man growing up gay in San Francisco's Castro district. As we set up tables and sprinkled cinnamon and vanilla extract into the coffee brewing for our Sunday brunch patrons, our conversations were lively with disco lyrics, things Herb Caen had noticed that day (or what others had noticed for him), and the goings-on of the residents at 28 Barbary Lane who, delightedly, seemed to be growing up right alongside San Francisco's burgeoning gay subculture. In many ways Anna Madrigal and Mary Ann Singleton stood in for our experience of participating in the creation of a progressive San Francisco, so many of us having come from elsewhere. The first four volumes of Armistaud Maupin's Tales of the City nine-novel cycle were serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle in columnar installments, followed by the fifth at the San Francisco Examiner, while the rest of the series arrived fully novelized, eventually televised, and suitably iconized. Serializing his story allowed Maupin to publish quickly after writing, incorporating current events and trends, which added an everyday realism to the Barbary Lane narratives. To paraphrase Black Elk, 28 Barbary Lane might have actually been Macondray Lane in San Francisco, but 28 Barbary Lane was everywhere.

Nine novelizations and three televised adaptations later, Armistaud Maupin's Tales of the City returns to San Francisco in a limited Netflix original series premiering as the opening night entry for the 2019 edition of the SFFilm Festival, in anticipation of its June 7 broadcast date.

As synopsized in the program notes: "Mary Ann (Laura Linney) returns to present-day San Francisco and is reunited with her daughter Shawna (Ellen Page) and ex-husband Brian (Paul Gross), 20 years after leaving them behind to pursue her career. Fleeing the midlife crisis that her picture-perfect Connecticut life created, Mary Ann is quickly drawn back into the orbit of Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) and her chosen family, the residents of 28 Barbary Lane."

  

Saturday, April 06, 2019

MICHAEL HAWLEY PREVIEWS THE 62ND EDITION OF THE SFFILM FESTIVAL (2019)

The SFFILM Festival, better known until just recently as the San Francisco International, celebrates its 62nd edition next week. What's different about this fest is that for the first time since 1976, I won't be in attendance due to a recent relocation out of state. That minor detail, however, won't stop me from talking about what excites me in this year's line-up, nor from sharing brief commentary on a handful of films I was able to preview.

The 2019 festival takes off on Wednesday, April 10 with the world premiere of Netflix's Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, featuring on-stage appearances by beloved series' star Laura Linney and writer/creator Maupin. Closing out the fest on April 21 will be Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightley as UK whistleblower Katherine Gun. Expected guests for the evening include the film's Oscar®-winning director Gavin Hood (2005's Tsotsi) as well as Ms. Gun, the movie's subject. Rounding out 2019's trio of Big Nights will be the Centerpiece Film presentation of Sundance hit The Farewell, featuring Crazy Rich Asians breakout star Awkwafina.

As always, SFFILM Festival offers up an enticing array of Awards & Tributes. Most noteworthy to me is the April 12 shindig for John C. Reilly—not just because he's an outstanding actor but because his tribute includes a Castro Theatre screening of Jacques Audiard's revisionist western The Sisters Brothers, perhaps the most criminally underseen film of 2018. Laura Linney, in addition to appearing on opening night, will hang around SF for another day to partake in her own April 11 tribute, featuring her Oscar®-nominated performance in Tamara Jenkins' 2007 familial dramedy The Savages. Across town that same evening, iconoclastic French director Claire Denis will finally, after several thwarted attempts, receive an SFFILM Fest tribute. That program includes a sneak peek at High Life, her English-language sci-fi thriller starring Robert Pattinson and Juliet Binoche, which opens the following day at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.

Other acting tributes include Laura Dern on April 14, accompanied by her latest, Trial By Fire, as well as esteemed child actor and longtime festival supporter Claude Jarman, Jr. on April 20. The now 88-year-old Jarman will receive the fest's George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award, followed by a showing of Clarence Brown's 1949 adaptation of William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust … in 35mm! Celluloid lovers also won't want to miss the Mel Novikoff Award presentation to BBC series Arena, wherein James Marsh's mesmerizing experimental docu-drama Wisconsin Death Trip from 1999 will also be projected in 35mm. Rounding out the awards roster is pioneering African American documentarian Madeline Anderson. She'll receive the festival's 2019 Persistence of Vision Award, accompanied by two of her early doc shorts.

Amongst this year's Live & Onstage presentations, I'd give top priority to hearing Boots Riley deliver the State of Cinema Address. The lefty rapper and musician recently took indie film by storm with his directorial debut Sorry to Bother You, which scored the Centerpiece slot at last year's festival. Other L&O offerings include all-women L.A. band Warpaint's live accompaniment to works by iconic experimental filmmaker Maya Deren (including 1944's seminal Meshes of the Afternoon) and a screening of Andrew Slater's new documentary Echo in the Canyon, about the early years (1965-67) of the Laurel Canyon music scene. Musician Jakob Dylan, who conducts the doc's on-screen interviews, will perform selections from the era live at the Castro Theatre following the screening. Fest-goers can also spend An Evening with Kahlil Joseph, who's perhaps best known for co-directing Beyoncé's Lemonade project.

Over the past decade, documentaries have come to occupy an increasingly larger slice of this festival's pie, with non-fiction works now comprising 47 percent of its total feature film count. That's a daunting number, but I'll try and touch on a representative sampling. The fest's Masters section is a good place to start, with new works by two acknowledged geniuses of the art form. Werner Herzog's Meeting Gorbachev will play the fest prior to its opening at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinema on May 10. I had the chance to preview Stanley Nelson's magnificent Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, which fits comfortably within a distinguished filmography that includes The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. As a Francophile I was especially intrigued with the section covering Davis' time in Paris—a searing romance with chanteuse Juliette Greco (interviewed on-screen) followed by the creation of his improvisatory score for Louis Malle's 1958 film Elevator to the Gallows. That collaborative project launched a whole new direction in Davis' music. Outside the Masters sidebar there are even more biographical documentaries, most with self-explanatory titles: Ask Dr. Ruth (opening at the Opera Plaza May 3), Halston, RAISE HELL: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am and Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall (the latter a portrait of San Francisco's notorious rock music photographer).

This year's festival is the first to take place in the era of legal recreational cannabis, and SFFILM is not letting 4/20/19 pass unnoticed. First, there's the previously mentioned 60's rock-doc Echo in the Canyon at the Castro—a venue where until the mid-80s patrons could smoke weed in the right-hand section unfettered. This festival's real 4/20 pot party, however, is likely to go down at Oakland's Grand Lake, where musician, filmmaker and former Yo! MTV Raps host Fab 5 Freddy will be on hand to present his new doc about the history of reefer in America, Grass is Greener. A third stoner doc option that Sunday is Hail Satan?, director Penny Lane's comic look at The Satanic Temple.

A total of 13 prizes were awarded to documentaries at this year's Sundance Film Festival and amazingly, SFFILM has programmed films representing ten of them. Topping the list with three prizes is Honeyland, a female Macedonian "bee whisperer" portrait which won a World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, a Special Jury Award for Impact for Change, and a Special Jury Award for Cinematography. The U.S. Grand Jury Prize was given to One Child Nation, which analyzes the consequences of China's infamous 35-year social experiment. The doc receiving the most publicity at Sundance was Knock Down the House, which won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award. Rachel Lears' film, which pops up on Netflix May 1, follows four female 2018 political candidates—most famously Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—as they strive to topple entrenched incumbents. I'm very intrigued by Special Jury Award for Cinematography winner Midnight Family, which trails a family who run a frantic private ambulance service in Mexico City. At the SFFILM opening press conference it was revealed that travel visas for the Ochoa family to attend the festival were (of course) blocked by the assholes who decide such matters. The remaining Sundance prizewinners one can see are Always in Season (Special Jury Award for Moral Urgency), Jawline (Special Jury Award: Emerging Filmmaker), Midnight Traveler (Special Jury Award for No Borders) and American Factory (Directing Award: U.S. Documentary). The latter film curiously landed in SFFILM's Masters section, of all places. I'm not at all familiar with its co-directors Steven Bognar and Julie Reichart, and an IMDb search also yielded nothing from them I recognized.

Amidst the surfeit of documentaries I've yet to mention, here are several of personal interest. Based on Victor Kossakovsky's ¡Vivan las Antipodas! (SFFILM Festival 2012), I'd definitely check out his latest work Aquarela, which sounds like an incredible sensory experience. Echoing that film's aquatic theme is Walking on Water, a reportage on environmental artist Christo's latest project The Floating Piers. Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei is expected to attend the festival for screenings of Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly, a closer look at the prisoner letter-writing campaign that was part of his Alcatraz exhibition. The international refugee crisis is the subject of two more SFFILM docs. Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America concerns LGBTQ refugees, and Central Airport THF takes a poetic look at Berlin's defunct Tempelhof Airport, which became a refugee camp in 2015. The latter is directed by renowned Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz (Madame Satã), whose last narrative feature Futuro Beach was co-set in Brazil and Germany. Central Airport THF garnered rave reviews when it premiered at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival, and was recently available to watch on Euro streaming platform MUBI. Speaking of Brazil, the fragile political situation in Aïnouz' homeland is the subject of Petra Costa's The Edge of Democracy. Finally, Kabul, City in the Wind and What We Left Unfinished uncover aspects of life in Afghanistan, with the second examining the country's film history via a trove of long-hidden works.

Moving on to the festival's narrative features, we'll begin with a look at the slim roster of French language films. I can easily recommend the two I previewed. Nathan Ambrosioni's Paper Flags features another unforgettable performance by Guillaume Gouix, here playing a short-fused, newly released convict out to establish a normal life with the help of his wary younger sister. Gouix first came to my attention in the sublime French zombie TV series, Les Revenant (The Returned), and more recently in distinguished supporting parts in Gaspard at the Wedding and Lucas Belvaux's This is Our Land. Hopefully, Paper Flags generates more lead roles for him in the future. I also quite enjoyed Olivier Masset-Depasse's Mothers' Instinct, a moody 1950's Belgian thriller with strong overtones of Hitchcock and Sirk. Addressing themes of jealousy and guilt through a female-centric lens, the film stars Veerie Baetens who many will remember from 2012's The Broken Circle Breakdown. For those who salivate over such things, Mother's Instinct also features to-die-for period art direction and costume design. As a Louis Garrel obsessive, it kills me to miss A Faithful Man, the impossibly handsome and charismatic actor's second feature as director. In a plot that sounds redolent of works by his father, Philippe Garrel, Louis plays a guy caught between the romantic attentions of two women, one older and one younger. Garrel co-wrote the film with legendary script maestro Jean-Claude Carrière, for which they won the screenwriting prize at last year's San Sebastian Film Festival. The fourth French language movie at SFFILM 2019 is David Oelhoffen's Close Enemies, which I'd recommend sight unseen for no other reason than it stars Matthias Schoenaerts.

There's a strong line-up of Latin American narrative features this year, including new works from three SFFILM alumni. Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj (A Useful Life, The Apostate) returns with Belmonte, an enigmatic character study of a still-handsome, middle-aged painter of garish male nudes. Javi Belmonte's peevishly sad-sack demeanor is of no help when dealing with personal crises. These include, but are not limited to, a pregnant ex-wife, an elderly father who may be going gay, and bored rich housewives who buy his paintings just to fuck him. This discomfiting sketch of an artist stuck in limbo is the perfect length at 75 minutes, and its sumptuous color palette has remained lodged in my memory. I was also taken with Benjamín Naishtat's Rojo, admiring it even more than his 2014 breakthrough debut History of Fear. In this deeply unsettling, formalist allegory set in the pre-days of Argentina's 1976 military coup, a small-town lawyer (screen-commanding Darío Grandinetti) gets involved in a real estate scam at the same time he's being pursued by a relentless police inspector (the great Alfredo Castro) over his involvement in a suicide/disappearance. The third filmmaker returning to the fest this year is Argentine director Ana Katz (Musical Chairs, A Stray Girlfriend) with her new film, Florianópolis Cream.

Two other Latin American features with strong critical buzz were unfortunately not available for preview. Lila Avilés' The Chambermaid won the Morelia Film Festival's top prize, as well as kudos from far-flung fests like Marrakech, Minsk and Palm Springs. Avilés debut feature is situated entirely within a Mexico City luxury hotel, wherein the titular maid imagines the lives of hotel guests based on their possessions and odd requests. Alejandro Landes' Monos won a World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award following its Sundance world premiere and is currently being featured in NYC's prestigious New Directors/New Films series. Set in the mountainous jungles of northern Colombia, the film has intriguingly been touted as a combo of Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now. It also boasts a music score by Mica Levi (Under the Skin, Jackie). A Colombian film I did have the opportunity to preview is Lapü, from the festival's Vanguard section. This entrancing docu-fiction hybrid languidly depicts the Wayuü indigenous tribal custom of digging up and then reburying the dead. Lapü should be of special interest to admirers of Ciro Guerra's recent film, Birds of Passage, which enacts the same Wayuü ritual.

The most notable Asian narrative feature at SFFILM Fest is undoubtedly Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's Asako I & II. The Japanese director took the festival world by storm a few years back with Happy Hour, a 317-minute paean to adult female friendship. That film's fervid reception resulted in a 2018 Cannes competition slot for his latest. Clocking in at a tidy two-hours, Asako relates one young woman's years-long obsession with two identical-looking men; a shy teen outcast who becomes a top fashion model, and a down-to-earth sake company marketing manager. Despite skillful direction, engaging script and fine performances, I found it much less profound than Happy Hour, and truth be told, a bit tedious in the final stretch. I was far more impressed with Qiu Sheng's Suburban Birds, a fascinating New Directors entry from China which alternates between two metaphysically linked narrative tracks. In the first, a team of structural engineers investigates why some buildings in the city of Wenjing are starting to tilt. The other lovingly conveys the quotidian (mis)adventures of a small group of pre-teen classmates. How these two threads relate (or not?!) should inspire spirited Q&As with director Qiu Sheng, who is expected to attend the festival. Bonus points are given for the film's use of Sonic Youth's "Little Trouble Girl" in a key scene.

Other Asian options at the festival include two films imminently scheduled to arrive in Bay Area cinemas. Singaporean director Eric Khoo's Ramen Shop hits the Opera Plaza on April 26. More often than not I find Khoo's films queasily sentimental and will probably give this one a pass. Opening at the Embarcadero Center Cinema on May 17 is Ritesh Batra's Photograph, which reunites the Indian director of 2013's wildly popular The Lunchbox with that film's star, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Rounding out the fest's Asian selections are First Night Nerves, the latest from Hong Kong arthouse master Stanley Kwan (Rouge, Lan Yu), and Dark Wave sidebar entry Project Gutenberg. The latter is a Chinese action thriller with a superstar cast (Aaron Kwok, Chow Yun Fat) helmed by the writer of 2002's Internal Affairs (Felix Chong). It should prove extremely fun to watch on the Castro Theatre's enormous screen.

From elsewhere in the line-up I previewed two more worthwhile entries, both of which premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar. In My Room is German director Ulrich Köhler's first film since his woozily mysterious, African-set Sleeping Sickness, which SFFILM screened in 2012. Following a half-hour set-up whereby we're introduced to Armin, a borderline schlubby TV news cameraman, we see him awaken to an existential apocalypse in which people have disappeared but everything else in the world is basically unchanged. The film remains extremely compelling as he begins life anew on an abandoned farmstead. Interest wanes, however, when the arrival of a female co-survivor slowly transforms the narrative into a more traditional relationship drama. In The Harvesters, Etienne Kallos' absorbing study of strained masculinity in a religious Afrikaner farm community, a teenage boy's world shifts dramatically when his family adopts a troubled urban teen whose past includes gay street hustling. I was wowed by the film's widescreen photography of stark South African landscapes, as well as by the empathetic performances of its two adolescent lead actors.



Out of the remaining bounty of narrative features, I'll close with three I'd be damn certain not to miss were I able to attend the festival in person. Loro promises another fevered, collaborative take on Italian politics from director Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo, The Great Beauty) and actor Toni Servillo. Their target this go-round is villainous, vainglorious media tycoon and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Originally shown in Italy as two separate two-hour movies, this 150-minute "international" version has its detractors. Given the talent involved, however, it remains a personal must-see. I'm certain The Nightingale will also be a must-see for anyone who had the shit scared out of them watching 2014's The Babadook. Jennifer Kent's follow-up film is a female revenge opus set in 19th Tasmania. Lastly, I wouldn't dream of missing the festival's 50th anniversary, 4K restoration screening of John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy, featuring an appearance by photographer Michael Childers, the director's life partner and assistant on this ground-breaking, Best Picture Oscar® winner. Anyone who attended the Castro Theatre's weekend-long Schlesinger tribute in 2006, or has heard him talk on last year's Criterion Collection release of the film, knows that Childers has some wild tales to tell.

Cross-published at film-415.

Friday, October 26, 2018

A BREAD FACTORY (2018)—All Feast, No Famine

"The Bread Factory once made bread, whereas now there are only crumbs; but, what they make of those crumbs is miraculous!!"

A new film by Patrick Wang is always a cause for celebration and his latest—A Bread Factory, Parts One and Two (2018)—makes up for his absence since The Grief of Others (2015) by providing a four-hour narrative bifurcated into two independent acts, each roughly two hours. By necessity, each act requires treatment as a separate film. Fans of duration will attend all four hours when A Bread Factory opens at the Village East Cinema in New York and at the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Los Angeles on Friday, October 26, with other cities to follow. But those with half the attention span will not be disappointed by only catching the first two hours (subtitled For the Sake of Gold), which—of the two acts—is the most cohesive and satisfying in its narrative thrust and trajectory, perhaps for providing at least a temporary sense of remedy to a complicated social issue.

After being around for 40 years, the Bread Factory—Checkford's local community arts center run by partners Dorothea (Tyne Daly) and Greta (Elisabeth Henry)—comes under seige from the May Ray Foundation, which purports to spread a message of global culture (most notably China, front and center), but is actually a financial ruse to siphon money away from the children's art program of Checkford's school system. To save the Bread Factory from financial ruin, Dorothea and Greta rally the community to defend their funding, which the school board is proposing to reallocate to the May Ray Foundation's FEEL Institute. For the Sake of Gold begins with the community's protest (scored to the Greek wind of tragedy and orchestral strings), then proceeds to a sequence where Dorothea and Greta escort guest filmmaker Jordan (Janeane Garofolo) to the Bread Factory where she is scheduled to show a retrospective of her films and teach a class on filmmaking to the students.

Patrick Wang remains one of the most challenging filmmakers working today precisely because he wants audiences to be engaged with cinema as the seventh art and eschews the formulaic tropes that have made many contemporary films marketable while making their audiences passive. Audiences can't be passive with a Patrick Wang film. This opening sequence between Daly, Henry and Garofolo initiates a labyrinthine plot that begs for Ariadne's clew. One never knows what to expect next, particularly as Act One veers into Act Two (subtitled Walk With Me A While). What at first strikes the viewer as meandering, disconnected and absurd narrative threads build through their own intricate and internal logic to weave a complex portrait of an alarming sea change (i.e., a "groundswell") in the American cultural-political landscape (or should I say seascape?).

One of Wang's recognized directorial strengths is his rapport with actors and—most notably in A Bread Factory—he directs an immense ensemble of more than 100 actors to create a cultural imaginary in which an independent art organization argues for its right to exist against a school board seeking to reallocate its funding. The intricacy of Wang's script elicits the best from each of his actors to specific purpose as their performances steer the script—through humor and pathos, through metaphor and farce—to Act One's heartbreaking finale. It's on the strength of his actors' performances that multiple themes are introduced, addressed, and articulated, themes that are ideas full of blood, so many ideas in fact that—in some ways—Act Two feels like Wang's surfeit of ideas requires complication and reiteration to achieve any sense of completion or resolution. I'll attempt to focus on how these performances provide nuance and tease out the script's tangled ideas.

Not only is A Bread Factory brimming with ideas, but the script is rich with chiseled lines. "You can always count on the Italians to be sensible," newspaper editor Jan Barley (Glynnis O'Connor) quips. Her intelligence is given a slight southern drawl as she questions the tax exemptions granted the May Ray Foundation and as she seeks to mentor her young intern Max (played earnestly by In the Family alumni Zachary Sayle, whose striking talent shines with natural delivery and enthusiastic charisma). Not knowing any better, Max is taken in by Man Ray's self-congratulatory press releases, as members of the school board are likewise fooled into believing that Man Ray's flaccid artistic experiments—intended to shock audiences with their incomprehensibility—are genuine art. The built-in applause and self-affirmation of May Ray's performance pieces discount valid criticism and discard critical rigor. They might as well be shouting, "Fake news!" May Ray's ridiculous performance piece of encouraging their audience to walk in hats, instead of shoes—with the calculated intention of selling photos to the participants of their feet in hats—represents the commercial justification for allowing affect to replace substance and artifice to stand in for art. Janet Hsieh (May) and George Young (Ray) represent compromised performances, and Act Two provides evidence for how disingenuine they truly are.

Jan warns Max to always be on the lookout for what he doesn't know and, as a journalist, to not rely on press releases since they are only trying to tell people what to think and are, in effect, selling a perspective. "Words have to mean something," Jan tells Max. "If words don't mean anything, then conversations built on those words can't possibly mean anything." This is as transparent a critique of the Trump administration as one might hope for in a film.

Jan also demonstrates how community is built upon concern for each individual within the community. She comes upon aged actor Sir Walter—Brian Murray in his final performance (and Murray, some might remember, portrayed the compassionate lawyer in Wang's first film In the Family). Sir Walter is disoriented and confused and—not wanting to embarrass him or disrespect him—Jan asks in her sweet southern drawl if he might walk her home, assuring him that she doesn't live very far from where he himself lives. For me, Sir Walter's importance as a character is his theatrical vigor from an older generation of stage acting, which articulates a critique he is therefore qualified to make later in the film, whereas Jan represents the moral compass of A Bread Factory. Her disappearance in Act Two signals a disturbing absence of critical rigor and a direct challenge to the young, which again speaks to the state of our nation. As an aside, I must mention Wang's moving tribute to Brian Murray for Talkhouse.

Another of Wang's directorial strengths is knowing how to balance farce with depth; in fact, how to use farce to accentuate depth. Jan's interview with visiting poet Ted Hugo (Noah Averbach-Katz), for example, is near slapstick in how the poet passes out and clunks his head on the table when he learns that Jan has actually read his volumes of poetry in order to prepare for their conversation. "Memories can be bad poetry," Ted states (in yet another lapidary line). Ted's interactional session with the students reveals the importance of different types of teachers to elicit different learned responses. His gondolas poem indirectly inflects the overall theme of the film: "Though we sink, we do not fall." Again, I may be reaching, but I can see how the film speaks to our current national crisis.

Quite brilliantly, Wang also exhibits a gleeful genre-within-genre abandon—he offers a staged play within a film; a film of a staged play—and he artfully maneuvers the connective tissue between stage and screen. Ted's poetry reading, in turn, is recognized as a staged performance and emphasizes the importance of a local arts organization to provide as many different types of staged performances as possible.

A "little movie theater play humor" comes in the guise of the dashingly handsome Hollywood actor Trooper Jaymes (Chris Conroy) who sees these various genres as all being "in the biz." In his introductory café scene with Julie (Erica Durham) where they're talking about "craft", he knocks the table and spills her drink, then takes off his shirt to wipe up the mess, causing everyone in the café to do a quick take as he grins sheepishly and winks at the camera in direct address. Conroy's performance is exactly what it critiques: the prurient interest of the average audience member in fantasized sex. It's a comic bit, but a brilliant bit, not only in itself, but for setting the stage for increased naturalism as the film evolves away from such artifice towards the community's confrontation with the school board. In his testimony at the town meeting, Trooper's artifice speaks for the opposition. His earnest emotionalism—as moving as it first appears—reveals itself to be a bought and ill-learned script. He needs to ask for his final, most important, line (which concerns the future welfare of Checkford's youth). This is when Sir Walter cuts him down to size: "That," he pronounces, "is not an actor." Which is to say that so many contemporary performances by young hunks displaying their vulnerabilities belies shallow sentiment and the lowest denominator of audience expectation.

Tyne Daly (as Dorothea) excels as a woman frustrated by the evident political maneuverings that seek to rob her beloved Bread Factory of its funding. In the face of members on the school board who think "it's time" to accept new trends and who—by saying so to her face—demean decades of effort and achievement, Daly is disillusioned to realize her years of involvement at the Bread Factory are seen as "bumpkin" efforts and not high art. The heirarchy of "high" and "low" art is as vapid as Man Ray's rant: "Down with the hierarchy of furniture!" Or—as in the case of Pat (Kit Flanagan), board chair—Dorothea is startled and saddened to discover that Pat's vote to reallocate funds away from the Bread Factory is cored on a smoldering need for personal revenge. Whereas Jan, for me, represents the film's moral compass from an intellectual and critical perspective, Dorothea represents the film's moral compass from an emotional and frustrated perspective.

Janeane Garofolo has created a career based on comic inflections of corrosive cynicism. Her character Jordan's Q&A session after her film retrospective is hilarious for being barren of meaningful interaction between her and her audience, except for Greta's query of how she deals with actors? "I treat them like my baby sister," Jordan answers Greta, "unless they're acting like assholes." Simon (Keaton Nigel Cooke), the tween projectionist, later questions Jordan why all her movies are so different from each other and why people get mad about those differences? One wonders if Wang isn't guising his own frustration with audience expectation on his films? Jordan's class with the Bread Factory's young students is cruel but pointed. If digital filmmaking is so readily dispensible, then what does it matter? If the filmmakers themselves don't care what happens to their work, why should anyone else? Jordan threatens to delete a young girl's video who meekly responds okay, which infuriates Jordan who says that's how she knows it's crap because if the girl is so willing to let her delete it, it must be crap. "I have it on my phone," the little girl counters, as if this alone justifies her digital creation. Exasperated that the student is missing the point, Jordan then threatens to kill the girl's dog, which earns an honest reaction. That's all I want from you, Jordan argues soothingly, that you care about something when you pick up a camera, that you want to cry for something. "What if I don't want to cry?" one of the other kids shouts out and Garofolo, as Jordan, answers without missing a beat, "Everybody cries when they make movies." Again, is Garofolo's character standing in for Wang? Is she his actor fatiche? How the young Simon interprets and incorporates Jordan's lesson and brings it to his family's dinner table suggests the efficacy of good advice that accentuates the importance of a heightened, meaningful life.

It's always a pleasure to watch Trevor St. John (the love interest from In the Family), whose handsome countenance is put to good use here to guise the charismatic lure of unchecked hypocrisy and unbridled threats via his character Karl Muller. He threatens to bring the Bread Factory to the attention of the Department of Labor because Simon is underage and "working" all the time as a projectionist. Muller is confident they will shut the Bread Factory down. Simon overhears this conversation and it is heartbreaking the sacrifice he makes to insure that Muller cannot achieve his end. Clearly, Muller displays a heartless lack of regard for why Simon is so often at the Bread Factory. It is Simon's place to be himself, to learn, to participate and feel useful. Worrying why he is staying away, Greta comes to visit him and to affirm that he is missed and that he is loved for being such a good friend to artists and that—whatever his decision—their good time together will always be remembered. Elisabeth Henry's performance in this scene is particularly poignant, showing—by contrast to Muller—how invested she is in Simon, how much she cares about him, but how she is willing to grant him the sovereignty he needs to make his own decisions.

The tender naturalism of Henry's characterization of Greta is contrasted against the broad gestures of Tessa (Elaine Bromka) who is introduced as a drama school chum of Greta's. At surface, somewhat like Sir Walter, Tessa exemplifies the cliché of the exaggerated personas of theater actors; but, when Tessa performs Yelena's (purported) soliloquy from Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (presumably as a guest piece at the Bread Factory), she is breathtakingly articulate and beautiful. What I need to point out here is Wang's adept usage of so many different approaches to acting and his facility for reconciling them into compatibility and continuity. Again, Wang is not only showcasing the remarkable talent of Elaine Bromka but exercising a genre-within-genre technique to texture and strengthen his narrative.

It's perhaps important to note Chekhov's plays—now recognized and accepted as permanent fixtures of international theater—met tepid reviews when first performed. It took audiences some time to understand Chekhov's emotional nuances. Wang has applied Chekhov's aimed philosophy of challenging actors and audiences by replacing conventional action with what Chekhov himself termed a "theater of mood" and a "submerged life in the text." He is, in effect, providing Ariadne's clew (i.e., clue) to guide us through the labyrinth, by placing this piece of Chekhov seemingly out of place and yet absolutely essential and appropriate to the narrative's traction. But most importantly, as far as I am able to determine, the soliloquy Tessa performs is Chekhovian, though not actually Chekhov. It appears that Wang has written a soliloquy adapted from Chekhov. Now why would he add this scriptural complication to a script already heavy-laden with ideas?

It's perhaps of further importance to note that—though Chekhov himself described his infamous quartet of plays (The Seagull, Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard) as comedies with farcical elements, directors such as Konstantin Stanislavski elected to present them as tragedies, spotlighting the dual nature of the texts themselves. By including his Chekhovian soliloquy within Act One, Wang is perhaps speaking to the dual nature of his own text, which as noted earlier is at times absurd and comic before plunging into relevance and depth? I may be wrong about this presumption, but I could find no credit referenced to Chekhov at film's end, nor could I locate this particular soliloquy when I re-read Uncle Vanya. It is this kind of ingenuity that identifies Wang as one of contemporary film's most remarkable screenwriters working today. And again I may be presuming too much when I suggest that his tip of the hat to Chekhov also addresses the increased social stratification of our current moment when "peasants are falling out of the trees."

But Wang doesn't stop there with his genre-within-genre scriptural device as throughout Act One the characters are in rehearsal for a staging of Hecuba at the Bread Factory. Wang's script for the Bread Factory production of Hecuba has been compiled, with permission of the publisher, from Euripides' classic plays Andromache, Hecuba, and Trojan Women. Again employing Chekhov's technique of submerging life within a text, the Bread Factory production of Hecuba mirrors the central social issue plaguing the Checkford community (encapsulated in Act One's subtitle For the Sake of Gold), namely that the adults who are supposed to responsible for the welfare of the young abandon that responsibility in pursuit of personal financial gain. Instead of allowing the Bread Factory to continue in its rightful education of the community's youth, Checkford's school board becomes complicit with efforts to do away with what the children truly need.

Elsa (Nana Visitor) is introduced as the translator for Hecuba. Her interactions with Sandra (opera star Martina Arroyo) are whimsical and offbeat. Sandra is sitting in on the rehearsals for Hecuba, allegedly because her grandson is playing the role of Hector. Whereas Elsa disclaims she is a writer, and identifies herself only as a translator, Sandra treats her respectfully as a writer and remembers her own husband—a writer of warranties for appliances—who often told her that more people read him than Faulkner. Sandra cogently disagreed, arguing that no one reads warranties, people read stories (which is also to say that audiences prefer to watch stories). She challenges Elsa to write down her own hard stories about family members in the war, but Elsa backs off in panic, though a trust builds between them. Eventually, Elsa reads her translation to Sandra who compliments her writing, saying "it was like being there." Then when Elsa is arguing with Dorothea about how the original Greek script calls for Hecuba to be singing her lines, Sandra begins singing, though she seems bemusedly disoriented as to why she should be singing. What is important in the interaction between Elsa and Sandra is a sense of respect for each others' distinct integrity and, by Act Two, Elsa is brought to a painful realization of what she has missed by not accepting Sandra's offer to listen to her family story.

Elsa is also a character whose integrity struggles to find itself beneath the weight of self-abnegation and denial. Her husband Jason (James Marsters)—presented as a local hero arguing for teachers' rights against the school board—is, at the same time, having an affair with the board's secretary, Mavis (Nan-Lyn Nelson). Mavis bolsters Jason's resolve to fight for their mutual concerns, and then Jason returns home to browbeat his wife Elsa and his son Max. What's said here about the hypocrisy of men who take their families for granted while promoting their stature within the community speaks to the psychological flaw that is corroding the American family unit.

Act One of A Bread Factory comes to a rousing and fascinating denouement at the town meeting to determine the school board's final budget allocation. Though the press notes refer to this scene as a "circus", I suggest it is much more than that. It shows how reasoned language has become gutted by bullying pretense. Both sides of the issue are given time to present speeches in support of their view. Muller, in his arrogance, offers lies at every turn to advance his cause (sound familiar?) while Dorothea and Greta, supported by Jan, rely on human truth. Muller brings in false experts to pronounce false results. Just as Sir Walter nailed Trooper Jaymes as a false actor, Professor Jean Marc (Phillip Kerr), an art critic resident of Checkford who has won a Pulitzer and National Book Award, undermines the false expertise of Alan Chen (Andrew Pang), the "art critic" brought in to argue for Muller's team) and reminds those present that the Bread Factory once made bread, whereas now there are only crumbs; but, what they make of those crumbs is miraculous!!

Act One concludes with Max despondent over Julie's decision to leave for Hollywood with Trooper. Though his failure to show up at the board meeting to help out with the vote is distressing, Max nonetheless arrives at the Bread Factory for solace, where Sandra is waiting for rehearsal to begin. When Dorothea arrives and assesses the situation, she uses the ritual of theater itself to help Max find expression (and catharsis) for his conflicted feelings. She brings him onto the stage and turns him towards the empty auditorium, noting, "Things look different from here" and then has him cold read a soliloquy from the script for Hecuba. The soliloquy is that of the ghost of Polydorus, the Trojan prince entrusted by his parents to be protected by a king who, instead, kills him to steal the gold his parents have sent with him. Polydorus, standing in for the youth of Checkford, as well as the youth of America, is killed for the sake of gold. He has no peace in his death. He has not been buried but thrown into the sea. His ghost arrives to the tent where his mother and sisters have been taken as slaves. "You're the ghost of Polydorus trying to find peace," Dorothea directs Max and walks away leaving him alone on stage.

Though protesting that he is not an actor, Max nails the narrative thrust of the soliloquy in his cold reading and the power of this, the power of his identification with the text, is amplified by the sure and steady camera work of cinematographer Frank Barrera, which glides in on Max slowly, intensifying his recognition of the relevance of the words he is reading aloud. Then suddenly Sandra joins him on stage, embracing him and singing about the poor prince who has been killed for gold and—despite the gravity of the moment and the script—Max giggles and smiles. It is an incandescent moment that illuminates the value of the Bread Factory, as well as the efforts of Dorothea and Greta, as champions of youth.

Finally, before leading into Act Two, Chip Taylor's wry and self-reflexive "Whose Side Are You On?" lyricizes about how the audience has come to the end of Act One with the credits rolling, but wanting to take a moment to assess why the victory of Act One might not be sufficient to tell the full story or to satisfy the need for simply more story, which Act Two then amply provides. It also makes it clear that you can't drive through a living room without revealing whose side you are on; a sober reminder of the divisive times in which we're living. Chip Taylor's songs, it might be remembered, were featured in Wang's debut feature In the Family. Their collaboration continues with A Bread Factory. Along with the film opening today in New York and Los Angeles, Taylor is releasing a new album of six songs; three songs are in the films, and three are exclusive to the album, available on digital and streaming sites, with the CD available for purchase on Amazon.