Imagine a Robert Altman-sprawling ensemble cast picture set in a small-town community arts center. Infuse it with some Christopher Guest-style humor, ala “Waiting for Guffman,” and a touch of surrealism.
That’s as close as I can come to describing “A Bread Factory,” Patrick Wang’s epic — as in four hours long — film that is dramatic and involving, funny and strange and, somehow gets to the idea of community, the homogenization of local culture and, in understated fashion, the value of the arts.
The film’s title comes from The Bread Factory, a community arts center established 40 years ago in an old factory in the small town of Checkford, New York. It’s founders, now married and in their late 60s/early 70s, are Dorothea (Tyne Daly), who runs the place, and Greta (Elisabeth Henry), an actress who is starring in the center’s adaptation of Euripides' “Hecuba” -- the rehearsals for which run throughout the two-part film.
The first half, subtitled “For The Sake of Gold,” revolves around a threat to the existence of the center. A pair of Chinese performance artists, May + Ray (Janet Hsieh and George Young) have built a new multimedia center in town, and the school board is planning to send the youth program funding that the Bread Factory depends on to the new enterprise.
So Dorothea and Greta have to embark on a lobbying campaign, aided by Jan (Glynnis O'Connor), who runs the local newspaper and has investigated the shady financing behind May + Ray and Mavis (Nan-Lyn Nelson), the one board member they can count on.
But there’s far more going on than just the campaign. A visiting poet and filmmaker (hilarious Janeane Garafalo) turn up at the center. Simon (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a teenage projectionist, turns out to be the center’s most valuable employee. An old, very serious thespian Sir Walter (Brian Murray in one of his last roles) and Jean Marc (Philip Kerr), the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic who once panned Walter, continue to squabble decades later.
There are affairs and political machinations, artistic discoveries, the revelation of back stories that intertwine the community members and even the appearance of a Hollywood hunk, who does a performance of sort at the hearing where the board is to vote on the funding shift.
Part two, “Walk With Me A While,” takes place after the vote. I’ll not give anything away about the outcome of that vote, nor will I divulge the overnight disappearance of a central character that puts an offbeat spin into the picture that focuses on the preparation for and ends with the presentation of “Hecuba.”
It is in part two that “A Bread Factory” becomes a bit more surreal, with, for example, a busload of tourists showing up in town, getting out their selfie sticks and going full on musical theater as they see very highly imagined sites.
There are also more personal entanglements, the discovery of a new, gifted actress and the arrival of tech -- which will alter any town or city’s culture as the center tries to soldier on.
By the end, “A Bread Factory” asks without stating it if the community arts center is a thing of the past, ready for the scrap heap, and if celebrity and homogeneity should win out over community. Its answer, of course, is no.
But Wang doesn’t present those issues in heavy-handed fashion. There’s too much humor and weirdness for that -- like Sir Walter’s long soliloquy rattled off while he sits in the newspaper office, the bizarre performance art (which deserves the parody) and the poet’s nervous reading and a board member turned parking lot attendant.
Shot on 16mm by Frank Barrera, “A Bread Factory” benefits from its real location, Wang delivering a great script and a host of fine performances, boosting it to the same level as a good Altman picture.
And, perhaps the ultimate praise, watched back-to-back, the two, two-hour installments never feel long or tedious. Instead, they’re entertaining, rewarding and memorably thought provoking.