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.

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