There are protesters and then there’s Dorothea and Greta. As the last ones standing after the opening credits of Patrick Wang’s slice of life epic A Bread Factory, their two-woman picket feels comparatively small following a montage of larger protests. A four hour movie, by contrast, is quite long and could meet its own share of reservations as Dorothea and Greta attempt to keep their theater space, The Bread Factory, alive.
To accomplish their goal, Dorothea (Tyne Daly) and Greta (Elisabeth Henry-Macari) need a school arts budget, but when a new theater opens, the board members (whose votes they need to stay funded) begin to stray. May and Ray (Janet Hsieh and George Young) are younger and more avant-garde. In the eyes of the board, they represent progress. Dorothea and Greta’s lonely picket braces viewers for the reality that, whatever good service their theater provides, it’s not the positive feedback but the numbers backing them that will decide their fate.
If everything’s set in stone, though, why watch A Bread Factory? Why spend four hours on this film, or paint picket signs? Why fight at all? The answer is in what we use to measure something’s value. If money and/or patrons were everything, movies like A Bread Factory wouldn’t exist. If volume mattered, than all of the shouting protesters in the opening credits wouldn’t have music drowning out their chants (Dorothea and Greta, it should be noted, are silent during their protest). The Bread Factory might be the older institution, but Dorothea and Greta still show up. Some of the most powerful scenes of the movie involve non-actors that Dorothea and Greta have wrangled into appearing on stage. They didn’t seek out The Bread Factory, The Bread Factory found them, and that kind of value isn’t quantifiable. It has to be seen.
Until a decision is reached on the arts budget, A Bread Factory gives viewers the chance to see how a center for the arts works. Located in the fictional, small town of Checkford (embodied in the film by Hudson, New York), The Bread Factory hosts it all: film screenings, poetry readings, live performances. Attendance is spotty, but one of the things the school arts budget pays for is visiting artists to hold workshops with the local kids.
Rather than being a message movie, A Bread Factory takes after the TV show Slings and Arrows to offer a colorful record of Checkford’s citizens. People like Sandra (Martina Arroyo) — who attends every rehearsal for a staging of Hecuba but doesn’t have a part — and Teresa (Jessica Pimentel) — who works at a local diner and isn’t a professional actor — are what The Bread Factory’s about — not stardom but community.
When you hear that an arts program is in trouble, none of the adages that are leaned upon to explain why an arts program is in trouble are given the time of day — the arts aren’t relevant, plays like the Greek tragedy Hecuba won’t sell tickets and young people don’t appreciate the arts anymore (one of Dorothea and Greta’s most passionate fans is a young boy named Simon who acts as their projectionist). Even May and Ray have fans, and their artistic value only becomes problematic when their success comes at the expense of others.
Nothing gets left unconsidered as Wang spends the length of two films covering The Bread Factory and its struggle to stay open. In one meta scene, Greta runs into an inconsistency with her character. They’re already into the rehearsal process, but she needs an explanation from her partner. While sitting in the living room, Dorothea’s ready to let it go — it doesn’t bother her — but Greta can’t. She’s serious about finding an answer. Wang’s direction for this scene isn’t fancy. The camera is static, but the depth of Greta’s dedication brings another layer of appreciation for the work that goes into crafting a performance. Over four hours, Wang wastes no time yet extends time to scenes and performances that deserve to be savored, and his leading ladies, Daley and Henry-Macari, are two of the best.
Is it possible to watch Part Two without having seen Part One? There is a recap (if not your typical, edited clips recap) that indicates it’s preferred that viewers start at the beginning (Part Two also allows for more abstract expression, like people tap dancing to their texts). But, it might be interesting to see how impressions differ about certain characters depending on when one begins.
Without having to reach too far, Wang uses each film to unravel characters and to expose real-life twists. When James Marsters’ Jason first appears, he’s preparing for a different kind of role (teachers’ representative) — but his heroic entrance runs into some snags after the film introduces his home life. Then there are characters like Simon and Max, whose lives take radical turns between films. Unless you see both parts, you’re missing a chunk of their stories without realizing it.
A Bread Factory is a movie about chances. Every party involved took a chance by making these films, and — from an audience perspective — you might feel like you’re taking one, too, by committing to two two-hour movies. If there’s a risk involved with watching A Bread Factory — an honest and untarnished ode to the arts — it’s in thinking that its length could be a bad thing.
Rachel Bellwoar (@ziggystarlog) drinks a lot of Coca Cola. Her tastes fall somewhere between David Bowie and David Lynch and, when she’s not writing for Vague Visages, you can find her reviews at Comicon, Flickering Myth, That’s Not Current and Diabolique Magazine.