Friday, October 26, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.