[Editor’s Note: This is a review of Part Two of “A Bread Factory,” a matched set of films about an arts center’s effect on a small town in upstate New York, written and directed by Patrick Wang (“In the Family“). Although each part stands alone and can be enjoyed separately, they are meant to be seen together. For a review of Part One, click here.]
Back in 1995, the writer-director Wayne Wang (no relation to the director of this film, Patrick Wang) released a charming pair of movies starring the same core cast, titled “Smoke” and “Blue in the Face”—ensemble pieces about inhabitants of a Park Slope neighborhood oriented around a cigar store. The first movie was traditional 1990s indie film, carefully scripted by novelist Paul Auster; when the production wrapped four days early and under budget, Wang, Auster and the actors decided to wing it and create a second film on the spot, and the result was a more freewheeling companion piece that continued some of the ideas from the first movie but felt more like a collection of caught moments. Part Two of of “A Bread Factory” appears to be just as meticulously constructed as Part One, but the difference in style and feeling is comparable. The first half of this tale of a small town art center’s struggle to survive alternated conversations and confrontations with snippets of the art that the center and a rival facility put on for local citizens, and for the most part, the line separating “real” from “not real” was carefully marked.
That’s not the case in Part Two, subtitled “Walk With Me a While.” It straightforwardly continues the story of Part One in some scenes, while breaking out into wild, sometimes charmingly goofy flights of fancy in others. It seems to take its cues from a scene in Part One where a visiting movie actor, flirting with a local girl in a restaurant, spills something on his shirt and then casually removes it. He wryly looks into the camera at the end of the scene just as all the patrons ogling him turn away and pretend not to be gawking. It’s almost a Ferris Bueller- of Bugs Bunny-like gesture of cheekiness, to break the fourth wall in that way—especially in a movie that otherwise lets us feel as if we’re a fly on the wall, observing people who have no idea we’re in the room watching them as they go about their business.
In that spirit, Part Two features numerous musical numbers, staged in the spirit of an “everyday” movie musical in which ordinary characters burst in real locations spontaneously burst into song and dance. The setting, once again, is Checkford, New York. The town has two arts centers. One is a forty-year old facility built in a converted bread factory and run by a veteran married couple (Tyne Daly and Elisabeth Henry). The other is a newer place across town that’s better-funded and more connected with much slicker, shallower art; it’s run by a couple of hipster performance artists who go by the team name of May Ray (Janet Hsieh and George Young) and their administrator Karl (Trevor St. John). It picks up where Part One left off, with the Bread Factory having narrowly avoided closure after the school board flirted with taking away their education subsidy grant and giving it to May Ray instead. As it turns out, our intrepid gang of artists, actors, educators and loyal patrons isn’t out of the woods quite yet.
There are more scenes depicting the center’s continued fight to persist and remain relevant, as well as a continuation of a subplot about the local newspaper editor Jan (Glynnis O’Connor), suddenly disappearing and leaving her paper in the hands of her talented young intern, Max (Zachary Sale), who’s in violent rebellion against his controlling dad (James Marsters). The most surprising and challenging thing about Part Two is how it takes one of the central ideas from Part One—art’s ability help us understand and express ourselves in everyday life—and externalizes it, so that creativity that might otherwise have been confined to the stages of the arts centers erupts into the world outside.
A quartet of characters who work for a local real estate agency show up en masse in the office of Dorothea (Daly), the cofounder and boss of The Bread Factory, and urge her to stop fighting, sell a barn on her property that’s currently being used out for set-building, retire, and travel the world with her partner, the actress Greta (Elisabeth Henry). A busload of tourists disembarks in front of The Bread Factory and wanders around town, endlessly taking selfies while being led by a tour guide who regales them with nonsense “facts” (“This is the place/Where God was invented/Where Adam and Eve dated/Each other!”) Diners in a local restaurant sit at their tables, talking in groups and texting by themselves, and suddenly one young man starts doing a tap dance routine synced to the movements of his fingers as he types on his phone.
There are other dance numbers in this vein, and they aren’t just indulgences: they’re plugged into one of the central ideas of the movie, the necessity of artists understanding and adapting to a changing world. Like the bit with the tourists endlessly recording themselves as they take a tour of Checkford, they show how iPhones and social media enclose us in little bubbles of narcissism that are only faintly connected to the actual world, yet at the same time turn us into bold and confident performers on a public stage, developing our own aesthetic just like the actors who appear onstage at The Bread Factory in a production of “Hecuba.”
Even seemingly ordinary scenes of people hanging out feel more theatrical and pointed in this half of the story, and more revealing of the ways that art informs life, and how the two bleed into each other so that it’s sometimes hard to tell where one picks up and the other leaves off. Sir Walter (Brian May), the old English actor who has starred in many Bread Factory productions, hangs out at the newspaper office, mourning his friend Jan’s disappearance and watching Max train a small army of children (all regulars at the Bread Factory) to be intrepid journalists (delightful comic scenes, like something out of an early Wes Anderson film). Sir Walter is unexpectedly joined by the local writer Jean-Marc (Philip Kerr), with whom he’s been feuding for fifty years because of a bad review. Together they reach an understanding, and swap stories that are expressed as long theatrical monologues where the camera parks on their faces as they talk and transport us into a mind space. (In these scenes, and in scenes set on an actual stage, Wang channels the spirit of Ingmar Bergman, who could find an entire self-contained film in a long close-up of someone talking.)
A more traditional approach to public art is expressed in the scenes of “Hecuba” being rehearsed and then performed, with young Theresa (Jessica Pimintel), a waitress at the cafe, letting herself be convinced to portray the daughter of Greta’s character, even though she’s nervous about never having acted before. (Every citizen of Checkford eventually appears on the stage, we’re told.) Wang gives us a nice, long scene of Theresa struggling in a read-through of the play while Dorothea directs her and Greta gives her a model to emulate, and—as in the closing scene of Part One, where Max reads from the same text and suddenly loses his self-consciousness and begins to really feel the words—we see Theresa come alive as an actress, becoming her character and being moved by the story.
In movies, we sometimes see artists toiling in order to learn their trade and be better at it, but the scenes are usually brief and often comical (getting laughs from people making mistakes), and they don’t really give us a sense of the gradual evolutionary process that takes them from being untrained to trained, bad to good. Theresa’s transformation into an actress is the true heart of this film, as carefully observed as the training of an athlete in a sports film. It culminates in a daringly long sequence at the end—as long as the school board hearing that ended Part One—where Wang simply lets us watch a wrenching scene from the play as performed by her and Greta. We not only see that Theresa is a real actress, we understand intuitively how the fears of the characters in the play subtly mirror the fears of the characters (Dorothea especially) that the arts center will be taken away from them. We never see the audience during this sequence, but we can imagine ourselves there in the theater, thinking about the future of the Bread Factory and the town, and the value of art as tool for understanding and appreciating life.
Part Two of “A Bread Factory” can be a bit discombobulating if you haven’t seen part one; you have to intuit a lot of the story because it’s embedded in, and implied by, the many scenes where people perform. But it’s still worth seeing on its own because it can be enjoyed as a sort of unofficial anthology movie, a crazy quilt of moments where a filmmaker and his actors just go for it, not getting too hung up on whether we’re going to be sold on whatever they’re doing in a particular scene because there’s always some new gamble awaiting us a few minutes down the road. But taken together with Part One, it seems as thorough and thoughtful a statement on art and life as any American filmmaker has given us. Part One is life, Part Two is art, but there’s lots of overlap in each half, and the way the two mirror each other makes us think about our own lives in relation to the art we love, as well as Wang’s movies themselves, mirrors that reflect us by drawing out our fears and dreams.