Saturday, March 30, 2019

Hanging on by a Thread at Patrick Wang's Art-vs-Commerce Opus A Bread Factory

Dorothea and Greta ain't it / In the Family LLC
Part One: For the Sake of Gold and Part Two: Walk With Me Awhile
(Patrick Wang, USA, 2018, 242 minutes) 

"We're hanging on by a thread."
--Dorothea (Tyne Daly)

Filmed at real-life venue Time & Space Limited in Hudson, New York, the Bread Factory is the multi-disciplinary arts venue around which Patrick Wang's two-part, four-hour Rivette-meets-Wiseman film revolves.

Set in the fictional town of Checkford, the 40-year-old venue, converted from a bakery, presents plays, films, operas, and poetry readings. They bring guests to town, they encourage kids to attend performances--they serve the entire community. Director and co-founder Dorothea (the invaluable Tyne Daly, resplendent in pigtails) is the linchpin of the operation.

As Wang (In the Family) introduces his characters, he treats each scene like a play, fading to black after every conclusion. In Part Two, the musicians behind the string-based score appear on stage, much as Alan Price's combo appears on screen in Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! I was also reminded of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, because the Bread Factory touches every segment of society; not just performers and audience members, but journalists, interns, waitresses, bartenders, translators (Nana Visitor of Star Trek: The Next Generation plays one), and singing tourists with selfie sticks.

Cranky director and preteen projectionist / In the Family LLC
As the film opens, a troupe rehearses a play, a poet reads his work, and a cantankerous experimental filmmaker (Janeane Garofolo having the time of her life) harangues her sparse audience. They’re all just fitting the space to their own ends when a fancy new venue opens up next door. It presents the kind of vacuous conceptual art, led by photogenic Chinese duo May Ray (married couple Janet Hsieh and George Young), that gives conceptual art a bad name ("The hierarchy of furniture is cruel, down with the hierarchy of furniture!"). Dorothea will spend most of Part One, "For the Sake of Gold," trying to convince city council members to allocate funding to the less trendy Bread Factory.

Fortunately, she isn't alone. She has Finnish-born partner Greta (Elisabeth Henry), an actress, by her side. It isn't often that a film features white-haired women, including newspaper editor Jan (Glynnis O'Connor), in leading roles, particularly one that doesn't revolve around aging. Wang is more concerned about gentrification, globalization, and the value we place on art. Dorothea's opposite number, Karl (In the Family's Trevor St. John), isn't simply a younger man, he ropes in preening Hollywood actor Troop ("I go where the art is") to help his cause, but Wang is hardly against the young, since kids plays a prominent role, too, from pipsqueak journalists and filmmakers to preteen projectionist Simon (Keaton Nigel Cooke).

If the struggle to secure the venue's future forms the film's spine, Wang does more than merely gesture at the art they produce, but rather stages entire scenes from Euripides and Chekhov. Sometimes, they take place on stage, sometimes offstage as if the people of today were grappling with the same issues as those long-ago Greeks and Russians, which seems to be Wang's point: they are. We bring life to theater, we bring theater to life.

Demy-inspired tourists with selfie sticks / In the Family LLC
In his conception, realtors break into four-part harmonies while hawking their wares and tech workers at a diner break into tap routines while checking their phones. There's just enough singing and dancing, particularly in Part Two, for the film to qualify as a musical, though it resembles a documentary in other respects, like the council meeting, in Part One, that has a Wiseman or Maysles feel, even if the humor is more pronounced in Wang's take on small-town politics (James Marsters, Buffy's Spike, plays the translator's husband, a school union representative).

If I had to choose between the two, I'd opt for the Altman-esque Part One, which moves more swiftly between stories, although you have to watch the more leisurely Part Two to find out what happens--or might happen--to the Bread Factory, and Wang found a touching, if somewhat ambiguous way to resolve that dilemma. Granted, he doesn't solve every mystery, like why Jan just up and disappears one day. Or whether the actor and the librarian ride off into the sunset--or whether she's just another quickly-forgotten fling.

More so than most movies, there's a sense that this community existed before Wang captured it and will continue after he fades to black for the final time, and Daly gives the kind of lived-in performance that rarely generates awards consideration, though it really should. As an unsympathetic council member tells her, "I have a feeling you'll keep going, no matter what."

A Bread Factory plays the Northwest Film Forum on Saturday, March 30 (Part One: For the Sake of Gold), at 4:15pm and Sunday, March 31 (Part Two: Walk With Me Awhile), at 7pm. Patrick Wang will be in attendance after both screenings for a Q&A. Images from The AV Club and Film Inquiry.

Friday, March 29, 2019

From Young Person's Concerts to West Side Story: Celebrating the Centennial of Leonard Bernstein at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival

Leonard and Jamie / Photograph from Bettmann / Getty
Leonard Bernstein didn't leave the mark he intended.

Conductor, pianist, teacher, television personality, cultural ambassador: Bernstein* (1918-1990) was all of these things and more. But he longed to be best known as a composer. That was the revelation that struck me the most while watching Leonard Bernstein: Larger Than Life, Centerpiece selection of the 24th annual Seattle Jewish Film Festival.

At a public TV-like 52 minutes, this 2016 documentary from German director Georg Wübbolt (Herbert von Karajan: Maestro for the ScreenSolti: Journey of a Lifetime) can't hope to cover every aspect of Bernstein's life, and it doesn't, but his desire to be more--or somewhat different--than he was comes across clearly. And yet, as one unidentified speaker notes, "Leonard Bernstein lived five lives during the short time he was on our planet."

A lengthier profile might have also explored his complicated private life, provided more context about the classical scene of his era, and taken a closer look at the physicality of his conducting. When Bernstein led orchestras, his body vibrated as his hair took flight, his mouth made strange shapes, and his arms slashed through the air like a samurai on overdrive.

At Tanglewood / Heinz Weissenstein / BSO
Unfortunately, the screener I watched didn't identify any of the speakers or provide subtitles for those speaking in German, including Bernstein (he also spoke Hebrew, Russian, Spanish, and Italian), so I didn't get everything out of it I could. I appreciated, for instance, the story about how he wanted to be loved by everybody. "That's not possible," composer Ned Rorem said. "Well, that's my tragedy," Bernstein replied, but I couldn't say who conveyed that exchange, because he isn't identified, though even casual music fans may recognize composer Stephen Sondheim and conductors Kent Nagano and Gustavo Dudamel. 

Fortunately, subtitles are sure to accompany this Sunday's screening at the Stroum Center. Better yet, Bernstein's daughter, author Jamie Bernstein (Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein), will be in attendance to help fill in the blanks. Former Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson (Something's Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination) will moderate their conversation. Bernstein will also be at the post-screening reception to sign books, which will be on sale at the event. In The New Yorker, David Denby, notes that her book is "unique among classical-music memoirs for its physical intimacy, its humor and tenderness, its ambivalence toward an irrepressible family genius."

If, as he feared, Bernstein is better known as a conductor than a composer, he wasn't exactly a slouch in that department. West Side Story, on which he collaborated with Sondheim, opened on Broadway in 1957, led to an Oscar-winning 1961 film, and will find new life by way of Steven Spielberg's upcoming remake, which begins filming this summer--in addition to numerous Broadway revivals and regional stagings. Other notable composing credits include the scores for the Broadway musicals On the Town, Wonderful Town, and Candide and the film On the Waterfront.  

Furthermore, his work lives on in ways that he couldn't have predicted, like the six Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra pieces by Benjamin Britten and Camille Saint-Saëns that Wes Anderson combined with Alexandre Desplat's score for 2012's youth-centric Moonrise Kingdom (Anderson even includes the sound of Bernstein's deep, nicotine-burnished voice). For many film goers, these New York Philharmonic pieces may have marked their introduction to Bernstein--and to classical music in general.

In addition, Bradley Cooper has decided on a biopic, Bernstein, as his directorial followup to A Star Is Born (naturally, he cast himself in the lead). If Leonard Bernstein didn't leave the mark he intended, it seems like a safe bet that he won't be any more forgotten in the 22nd century than he is now.

*Bernstein, who was born in 1918, would have turned 101 this August, and not 100, but Centennial Plus One just doesn't have the same ring to it.

Leonard Bernstein: Larger Than Life plays Stroum Jewish Community Center, 3801 E. Mercer Way on Mercer Island, on Sunday, March 31, at 4pm. Pre-sale tickets are sold out, but there will be a standby line. This year's SJFF opened on March 23 and runs through April 7 (after taking a break between April 1 and April 5). For more information, please click here.