It’s easy to forget that in 1972 the highest grossing film in the United States was Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather which more than doubled the take of the third and fourth runners up, Peter Bogdanovich’s romantic screwball whatchamacallit What’s Up, Doc? and the taboo-smashing porno Behind the Green Door. Or that in 1979 films by Coppola and Ridley Scott outgrossed both the Muppets and James Bond. Or that Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris outgrossed Disney’s Robin Hood. Yes, it’s easy to forget that there once was a time when American studios not only financed difficult, challenging films by directors raised on classic Hollywood auteurs and the European art-house, but that American audiences—regular, blue-collar audiences with nary an artistic pretension in their bones—would pay to see them. It’s difficult for the film critic or historian to look back at this era and not feel depressed by the current state of American moneymakers clogging up the popular consciousness: bloated CGI monstrosities, conveyor-belt superhero epics, half-hearted remakes and reboots. Which isn’t to say that American cinema has given up the ghost! Quite to the contrary: the indie circuits still churn out deeply personal, deeply idiosyncratic gems while the aged New Hollywood vanguard and their imitators keep their heads down and grind out reliably engaging hits. And with the rise of streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu a new era of bold filmmaking utterly unconcerned with traditional audience demographics has redefined the cinematic discourse. Yet an era has passed. The time of the Hollywood art film is no more.
How curious, then, is Patrick Wang’s A Bread Factory, a monolithic two-part, four-hour drama about a small community arts center in upstate New York. At once maximalist in scope yet intimate in its interiorities, the film is a macrocosm of a community and the colorful people within. Though Wang deliberately evokes the ensemble dramas of Robert Altman with decentralized storytelling that drifts between dozens of major and minor characters, his narrative lodestars are Dorothea (Tyne Daly) and Greta (Elisabeth Henry-Macari), an elderly lesbian couple who’ve run the eponymous art center—which was, in fact, built in the hollowed-out remains of an old bread factory—for forty years. The two make an odd pair what with Dorothea being confrontational and crotchety and Greta conciliatory and caring. Yet the two stay together in large part due to a shared madness: the absurd conviction that Art—serious, soul-searching Art with a capital “a”—has a valid, important place in everyday American life. They run their Bread Factory less like a communal artistic space than as a religious mission, doggedly spreading the gospels of Chekov and Greek tragedy in an age of smartphones and Netflix. In Part One, subtitled For the Sake of Gold, the two struggle to secure city council support for an upcoming vote that could strip their educational subsidy and give it to a new arts facility run by pompous Chinese performance art duo May Ray (Janet Hsieh and George Young). Part Two, subtitled Walk with Me a While, sees Dorothea and Greta prepare for a community players performance of Euripides’ Hecuba while a strange cadre of tourists and tech junkies start swamping the streets of their tiny town.
Greater details could be gone into about each part’s respective stories, but to give a narrative play-by-play would miss the point: A Bread Factory is about the experience of engaging with art as it’s made alongside the actual artists. One of the film’s more obvious influences is French New Wave director Jacques Rivette, a filmmaker whose work repeatedly returned to the subject of artists mired in the act of creation. In his 1991 masterpiece La Belle Noiseuse, Rivette charts an elderly French painter’s artistic reawakening via a series of real-time sequences where he meticulously draws, inks, and paints several pieces from scratch. And in his notorious 13-hour drama Out 1 (1971) we watch for hours as stage actors rehearse two different Aeschylus plays. But unlike Rivette, Wang turns his eye on first-time amateurs discovering the power of Art. An early scene in Part One sees an embittered Janeane Garofalo as a grouchy filmmaker giving a class of schoolchildren a 101-lesson in directing, caustically dismissing their amateur videos as garbage before exhorting them to feel and say things in their work. Cut to one of the schoolchildren berating their mother that night for not putting enough feeling into their family dinner. Later, Dorothea helps a teenage boy cope with a contentious breakup by having him cold-read one of the betrayed and murdered Polydorus’ speeches from Hecuba. At first, he stumbles over the mannered language of the 2,400-year old prose, halting and hesitating as he gets a feel for the words. But by the end, the ancient playwright’s verses have broken through his pain and brought him some semblance of healing. Later still, in Walk with Me a While, we watch a waitress drafted by Dorothea to play the doomed Polyxena break down in tears during her first rehearsal after being caught off-guard by another actress’s monologue.
A Bread Factory is one of the rare films unafraid to include performance pieces outside of the narrative as essential parts of their overall text, emulating in particular the films of Ingmar Bergman who regularly interspersed his chilly Swedish dramas with impromptu plays or magic lamp performances. Wang spends much of the second film watching the much-anticipated community performance of Hecuba go off without a hitch, letting us revel in Dorothea and Greta’s success in bringing serious (and needed) culture to their small town. He twins these Hecuba scenes with several utterly insufferable May Ray pieces in the first half. Unapologetic in their naked pretension and absurdity—in one performance they pronounce “the hierarchy of furniture is cruel” and mime eating off kitchen chairs while sitting on tables; elsewhere they encourage audience members to “walk a mile in other people’s shoes,” said shoes being comedically oversized novelty hats refitted into slippers—May Ray represents everything well-to-do upper-middle-class social climbers imagine “Important Art” to be: indecipherable esoterica with no real meaning or purpose other than to make the audience feel smart and cultured at the expense of their time, money, and common sense.
Not all of Wang’s extra-textual diversions work, however. While Part One more or less maintains a grounded sense of reality, Part Two features several unexpected Stanley Donen-esque musical numbers: a group of selfie stick-wielding tourists are led through town by a warbling tour guide who makes up ridiculous facts like how a local parking lot was designed by Benjamin Franklin; a popular cafe gets infested with tap-dancers who break out into dance routines while texting on their phones; a choral quartet of real estate developers storm Dorothea’s office and serenade her on the prospect of selling her old barn. It’s difficult to figure out Wang’s intensions with these segments. Are they some Jungian embodiment of Dorothea and Greta’s artistic aspirations bleeding into the fabric of their town? Was it an eccentric method of othering the strange new visitors and residents? Or was it merely just a passing fancy on Wang’s part—some odd and bizarre whimsy he felt like indulging just for the hell of it? It’s hard to say. Whatever the case, they add less than Wang may have hoped for, merely a sense of spontaneity which, while welcome, feels out of place within the context of the rest of the film.
Ah, but to focus solely on the plot is to miss the trees for the forest, as the true joy of watching A Bread Factory is spending time with its motley of characters. In his Great Movies review of Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), the classic French comedy about a man spending a disastrous holiday at a seaside resort, Roger Ebert wrote: “I met all the people Hulot met, I became accustomed to their daily perambulations as he did…when I saw the film a second time, the wonderful thing was, it was like returning to the hotel. It wasn’t like I was seeing the film again; it was like I was recognizing the people from last year.” And after the first hour or so of A Bread Factory, we find ourselves regarding the carousel of characters much in the same way, for since the passings of Altman and Federico Fellini, there has scarcely been an ensemble cast more instantly winning and endearingly human than this one. Many pop up for only a handful of short scenes, yet the impressions they leave are remarkable. Here’s Simon (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a preciously chipper young boy who spends all his free time working as the Bread Factory’s volunteer projectionist simply because he loves movies. Here’s Sir Walter (Brian Murray), a blustery windbag of an old thespian who still nurses a grudge against a local critic for giving him a bad review once fifty years ago. Here’s Karl (Trevor St. John), the sharp-suited administrator of May Ray’s new complex whose clipped manners hide a cruel ruthlessness in court. And so on and so on and so on. Even May Ray get a scene where the two privately drop their manicured public personas, revealing that behind their ridiculous façades are two frightened young people just trying to navigate life in more-or-less one piece.
It’s appropriate that the tragedy Hecuba is at the center of A Bread Factory, as it’s ultimately a play about a group of women valiantly struggling against oppressors yet ultimately losing, dooming themselves to terrible, unknown fates. Without going into too many details—again, the story isn’t strictly the point of the film—Dorothea and Greta are destined to lose their place in their community to forces outside their control. Wang might have boundless depths of empathy, but he ultimately tips his hand as a realist: the arts might never recover the prominent place they once had in popular American consciousness. Coppola will probably never again outgross James Bond; Bogdanovich will probably never have another epoch-defining box office darling; and artists like Dorothea and Greta will probably fade into the distance as the great thinkers and writers of yore get replaced by puerile power fantasies on our iPhones and laptops. And yet A Bread Factory exists, improbably, unapologetically, defiantly. It’s a labor of artistic love, yes, but it’s also a call to action. Make the art, sing the song, act the part! All the great performers were amateurs and upstarts once! If we can only give them the time and support, schoolchildren can make movies and greasy spoon waitresses can act Euripides. Is the film perfect? No, not at all. But it’s the rare work that stares directly at its audience and challenges—no, demands—that they make a better one.