Editor’s note: This piece is on the 2019 Urban Nomad Film Festival, and it benefits from two post-screening Q&As, and a subsequent panel discussion of which I was a part.
The question of the power of art is an ancient one. Confucius said, “If you do not study the Songs, you will be at a loss as to what to say.” And Plato had such a powerful view of the performing arts that he banned all poet-singers from his ideal Republic for fear their work would override people’s reason. But under the utilitarian logic of our contemporary neoliberal society, the question “What does art do?” has been reduced to a mere shadow of its storied history: “What can art do?” Writer-director Patrick Wang’s A Bread Factory (2018), four hours split right down the middle into two parts, ambitiously attempts to answer this question, not intellectually with auteur-surrogate characters spouting exposition, but performatively and cinematically, juxtaposing the contrast between bean-counting life and expansive humanist living in almost every one of its vignette-like scenes. Most audacious of all, the film doesn’t rest on its Manichean haunches; instead, it humanizes even the supposed antagonists, offering us the formal victory of art in the face of its thematic defeat.
A Bread Factory is such a rich film that despite this review’s length, I’m only able to hit the highlights. There are, for instance, at least twice as many significant roles as are mentioned here, some of whom have spectacular lines. The solace of art apparently requires lots and lots of company. And don’t skip either set of end credits.
The fictional small town of Checkford, NY, boasts a quaint 40-year-old arts center called The Bread Factory (it used to be one), run by elderly spouses Dorothea (a no-nonsense Tyne Daly) and Finnish stage actor Greta (Elisabeth Henry). The calendar they offer each year is eye-watering, with regional and international artists of all mediums coming to present their work and engage with the community, especially with the children. In fact, The Bread Factory is in the midst of rehearsing for a production of Euripides’ Hecuba, based on a new translation by local scholar Elsa (Nana Visitor; it’s actually the beautiful work of Diane Arnson Svarlien), when a new postmodern arts center moves into town and attempts to take over the school board arts subsidy that is The Bread Factory’s lifeblood. The new place features May Ray, an internationally renowned performance art duo from China (Janet Hsieh and George Young, respectively), whose work can be charitably described as “retro avant-garde”: The first piece we see, recorded for the internet, has them sitting on a table with their feet on chairs, at which they throw Wing Chun-style air punches while chanting “Down with the hierarchy of furniture!” Riveting stuff. Dorothea, Greta, and their allies work the board members one by one ahead of the budget meeting and vote—with clear heroes and villains and an impending showdown, it’s a classic Western setup.
And yet, the conflict of the film isn’t between the two kinds of art. Though it’s implied that May Ray are the more superficial artists, we never really know. The only time May Ray are granted the chance to speak for themselves, May monologues but the mic doesn’t pick her up. In Part 2, as Ray is about to leave the duo, the two get an affectionate parting scene in which they agree that their kind of art is what they’re good at. Their confidence shines through in their work, which lacks the probing and self-doubt embodied in the work on show at The Bread Factory. Perhaps May Ray are more craftspeople than artists, but the film declines to editorialize on whether the resulting art is meaningless.
Ray leaves because of the somewhat improbable reason that the local paper’s cub reporter discovers that his mother is Taiwanese. That reporter would be Max (Zachary Sayle), who works under the tutelage of the paper’s editor and only other journalist, Jan (Glynnis O’Connor), until at the beginning of Part 2 she disappears to let him take over. In an early scene, Jan chastises Max for writing copy that takes from a May Ray press release verbatim, and guides him to think about underlying motivations and to question everything; when he starts running the paper, we see him follow up on each phoned-in lead with a barrage of questions. His arc is one of a handful that follow individuals in the development of their capacity for humanistic inquiry, be it artistic or investigative. Another is that of Teresa (Jessica Pimentel), new to town and waiting tables at the local cafe, where she’s discovered by Dorothea and Greta and asked to play the key role of Polyxena, Hecuba’s sacrificed daughter. She has no prior experience, and it’s a rare treat to see her gradually discover the joy of acting and its basis in the emotions of human interaction.
But others are not so receptive, and Dorothea et al. struggle to muster a majority of voting board members. One member, Darren (Eugene Brell), sincerely believes that May Ray is the better option because they, being Chinese, let kids see “the world”—even after Dorothea patiently explains the multicultural art of The Bread Factory, about which Darren seems to know nothing. Another board member is bought off by a third member, Alec (Joe Paparone), whose finances are entangled with the (off-screen) mayor’s, a mayor who’s a major investor in the May Ray Foundation (yes, the film takes a sideswipe at the corporate nonprofit world). The absurdity of these exchanges is heightened by the Roy Andersson-like effects of the stagey blocking and lighting and cinematographer Frank Barrera’s use of master shots for most of the vignettes. The Bread Factory gets Alec to recuse himself, and successfully passes a motion expanding the student representation (both kids are for The Bread Factory), but the key vote lies with chairwoman Patricia (Kit Flanagan), who blames her son’s untimely death on his obsessing over a Bread Factory project.
It’s telling that whereas the other opposing members are focused on quantifiable benefits and can’t be moved—when Dorothea lobbies Darren, he speaks in platitudes and small talk, seemingly impatient with Dorothea’s fully contextualized and well-reasoned remarks—Patricia is visibly shaken when Dorothea tells her the project was a birthday present from son to mother. During the public comment phase of the meeting, the May Ray faction calls on a performance from Hollywood star Trooper Jaymes (Chris Conroy, featuring a fourth-wall-breaking joke) and hack art critic Alan Chen (Andrew Pang), whose “review” of a May Ray piece is worse than anything you can find in the blogosphere. (The Bread Factory’s rebuttal speaker, a true critic played by Philip Kerr, calls it a piece of self-satire.) The Bread Factory, on the other hand, presents the genuine, messy support of local parents, who clearly have not been coached, with their comments at one point veering into homophobia.
The conflict of the film, then, is this: fixed certainty about quantifiable ends justifying the means, versus continually questioning and self-exploring means giving meaning to whatever ends emerge. It’s spreadsheet ethics against humanistic inquiry.
Patricia ultimately abstains, granting The Bread Factory a majority, but at the very next board meeting, off-screen in Part 2, May Ray win over a new board, this time with Patricia voting for The Bread Factory. Why do we need arts spaces like The Bread Factory? This was the question on Wang’s mind that led him to make this film. It seems that art needs a refuge from society in order to thrive; we see what happens if this safe space is compromised when Simon (Newton Nigel Cooke), the precocious young cinephile who volunteers as projectionist, overhears a threat from the May Ray Foundation to report his situation to the labor authorities. He decides to never set foot in The Bread Factory again, implicitly killing his chances of becoming a filmmaker.
If Part 1 struggles to articulate a defense of humanistic practices and values to people who don’t already get it, Part 2 shows the humanistic tradition in full retreat from a society that has no desire to parley. Part 2 surrealistically and expressionistically incorporates song and dance, with tourists singing a musical number as they obnoxiously wield their selfie sticks, employees of the town’s new tech company self-absorbedly tap-dancing the hand movements that they tap out on their phones, and a quartet of realtors singing their siren song sales pitches. (When they try to persuade Dorothea to sell her storage barn, she gripes, “I’ve heard this song before.”) These performances are energetic, entertaining, and sometimes even moving, but they are without a doubt not art. They are artistic means coopted by and at the service of the profit motive. Part 1 argues that society in general is lacking in art; Part 2 counters by filling society with artistic forms, and so the battleground shifts to whether and why society needs the idea of art.
The film’s answer hits us powerfully in the final scene. Dorothea, after learning of The Bread Factory’s impending closure due to lack of funding, is storing the Hecuba set with Greta when she experiences a crisis of faith: “What are we doing?” As Greta tries to comfort her she says, in her typically prickly yet lovable fashion, “Can you not be so comforting? I’m trying to come unanchored here!” Finally, Greta asks her to tell “the joke” (perhaps you’ve heard it before), which follows the format, “Remember when [bad thing happened] and you were there to keep me company?” Dorothea runs through the list of events, and we gradually realize it’s a list of literally every major misfortune that’s befallen her, with the final item being the pièce de résistance: “Remember when we ran out of money and had to close The Bread Factory, and you tried to comfort me?” As that simple description and all the pathos it channels from the past four hours set in, the punchline delivers the coup de grâce: “I’m starting to think you’re bad luck!” Oh that we should all have such luck.