Patrick Wang’s unlikely two-part comic epic A Bread Factory is set in Checkford, New York, a quiet town where residents gossip over coffee at Sam’s diner about the goings on at the school board, the town council, and the Bread Factory, the community arts center that is the soul of the town. Long ago in Checkford’s industrial past, the building was a bakery. Now it hosts plays, art classes, poets, and musicians. Attendance is scanty even by a small town’s standards, despite ample parking; still, it nourishes cultural life in what one grandiloquent old-timer dubs “an age of crumbs.” But A Bread Factory is more than an ode to micropolitan life and DIY arts and crafts. If Wang—whose debut, In The Family, was another long, thoughtful look at the intersection of lives and values—has an overarching theme, it’s that no person is a solo act. His new film (or, technically, films) is, in various layers, about the uses and half-meanings of art and about community theater at its most literal—about roles that must be filled and performed, even if the audience isn’t there.
In many respects, A Bread Factory is as kooky and quixotic as the community center where so much of it takes place—not least because its two parts, which share a storyline but have some notable differences in style, run a combined 242 minutes—and as diverse and unpredictable as Wang’s ideal of democracy. It is a critique of globalization and of communities run like businesses that includes wacky songs, Twin Peaks-ian soap opera, long passages of Greek tragedy (Euripides’ Hecuba, seen in rehearsal and performance), two different extended parodies of Russian literature, and tap dancing. Part One: For The Sake Of Gold ends with a song about staying for the credits (by Chip Taylor, writer of “Wild Thing” and “Angel Of The Morning”) and Part Two: Walk With Me A While begins with pantomimed reenactments of Part One’s plot. It’s hard to tell where the Bread Factory ends and A Bread Factory begins; both are venues for art-for-art’s-sake goofiness held together by more serious questions of community, and neither could ever be mistaken for a commercial undertaking.
Part One introduces the large, novelistic cast of characters. There’s Dorothea (Tyne Daly) and Greta (Elisabeth Henry), the seventysomething couple who run The Bread Factory; Jan (Glynnis O’Connor), the editor of the weekly Checkford Journal, and her cub reporter, Max (Zachary Sayle); Sir Walter (the late Brian Murray) and Jean-Marc (Philip Kerr), old nemeses who retired to the same town and are now both losing their memories to dementia. Some are just passing through Checkford, like Jordan (Janeane Garofalo), a bitter experimental filmmaker who heckles her own Q&A. Most come in couples or pairs. Checkford, we quickly learn, is being turned upside down by the arrival of the art-world duo May Ray (Janet Hsieh and George Young), who have come to town with plans for a new multi-million-dollar venue called the Forum For The Exercise And Experience Of Living, or FEEL.
May Ray are superstars, brand-name performance artists who are always in-character. In one piece, they chant, “The hierarchy of furniture is cruel. The suffering of furniture is real. Down with the hierarchy of furniture. I will sit on the table. I will eat on the chair. Down with the hierarchy of furniture.” (“You’re telling me this will go on for another 20 minutes?” asks Jan.) In another one, they strap floppy hats to their feet like snowshoes. Although Checkford is fictional, it’s based on Hudson, New York, and the plot of A Bread Factory takes some obvious inspiration from the performance artist Marina Abramović’s failed attempt to build her own Marina Abramović Institute in the town.
It would be too easy for Wang to paint May Ray as carpet-bagging glitterati, turning A Bread Factory into one of those archetypal 1980s snobs-vs.-slobs comedies where everyone rallies to save the community center. But the conflict isn’t over what constitutes “real” art; it’s anti-capitalist, not anti-modern, and May Ray are in on the joke. Their performances poke fun at the global art market (namely, the commercialization of protest art, with nonsensical targets), their own phoniness and celebrity, and the local business leaders who are trying to sell them to the town with the help of a Hollywood A-lister and “three-time Oscar contender” with the unlikely name of Trooper Jaymes (Chris Conroy). At their first press conference, May Ray come out in space suits to whoops of canned applause. They’re artists and, in Wang’s view, art is supposed to be fun.
Much of Part One deals with the humanist nitty-gritty: rehearsals, tech checks, and improvisation exercises, plus Dorothea’s attempts to secure votes at an upcoming hearing that will determine the Bread Factory’s financial future. But in Part Two, things take a turn for the weird, with a bizarre musical number about Checkford’s nonexistent landmarks (beginning with the oldest parking lot in America, “Designed by Benjamin Franklin / After the French style of lotted paaaarking”) and the introduction of an a capella quartet of singing real-estate agents. Children take over the running of the Checkford Journal as the people of the town slip into new roles amid disappearances and recastings. Yet the surrealistic tangents and laugh-out-loud gags underscore A Bread Factory’s core values. Most of the characters are either youngsters or old fogeys; they are the people to whom these local institutions matter most.
Despite Wang’s habit of casual stylistic quotation (riffing on Ingmar Bergman’s compressed close-ups here, Wes Anderson’s whip pans there), A Bread Factory remains stubbornly its own thing. Filmed on Super 16mm, mostly in long takes and long shots, it doesn’t comport itself even to the standards of grainy indie style, asserting genuine, uncool independence in every off-kilter high angle and plywood set. Even its flaws convey something of its themes—the importance of having a place for art that isn’t perfect and isn’t going to appeal to everyone. Personal art, in other words. For Wang, the strictly personal is the building block for everything else—whether it’s the well-worn groove of a long-term relationship or a Chekhov pastiche performed by a woman wearing a samovar as a hat.