Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 26, 2018

The Bread Factory; Monrovia, Indiana

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:14 pm

Under consideration are two distinctly uncommercial films that will appeal to those with unconventional tastes, i.e., the sort of people who read this blog on a regular basis.

“The Bread Factory” is a two-part narrative film that opened today at the Village East Cinema. This means that you are in for a four-hour drama about the struggle of a couple of elderly lesbians to keep a performance space specializing in classical fare such as Euripides’s “Hecuba” going in a fictional town called Checkford. For decades they have routinely received funding from the school board that viewed the Bread Factory (named after the factory that was converted into a warren of theaters and workshops) because it allowed schoolchildren to learn how to make films, act, write poetry, etc. in the evenings and weekends.

This year it is different. A new performance space to be run by a couple of Chinese performance artists named May and Ray has opened up in town that has convinced the school board to spend its money on something more in line with changing global tastes and priorities. Doesn’t everybody know that China is the future?

Director Patrick Wang is well-equipped to treat such a dramatic conflict because he is both a trained economist and playwright. Six years ago I reviewed his first film “In the Family” that depicted the custody battle of a gay man for the right to raise the son of his domestic partner who dies in an automobile crash. From my review:

The story behind the making of the movie is almost as dramatic as the movie itself. Patrick Wang graduated from MIT with a degree in Economics and a concentration in Music and Theatre Arts. According to the press notes, he started out professionally as an economist. In that capacity, he studied energy policy, game theory, and income inequality at the Federal Reserve Bank, the Harvard School for Public Health and other organizations.

Using money that he had saved from such an establishment job, he put a half-million dollars into the film and stubbornly tried to get a theatrical release even though distributors were not interested. Fortunately, the quality of the work sold itself and New Yorkers have a rare opportunity to see something that not only is top-notch film-making but an eloquent but carefully modulated statement about the essential humanity of same-sexers.

Stubbornly? That is exactly what characterizes the two women who run the Bread Factory as played by Tyne Daly, the former star of the hit TV series “Cagney and Lacey”, and Elisabeth Henry, who has never appeared in a film before. For the two, it is not just a question of livelihood. If the Bread Factory does not get funded, they become unemployed septuagenarians. But it is also a challenge to their deeply held beliefs about what constitutes art. Although May and Ray are obvious charlatans, it is just as obvious that such people command the kind of attention so prevalent in a cultural world anxious to exploit the latest trends.

When I began watching the film, I had a sense of déjà vu. There was something about the Bread Factory that seemed awfully familiar. Putting the film on pause, I took a look at the press notes and discovered how Wang got the idea for “The Bread Factory”:

When I was on tour with my first film, one of the places that invited me to come and speak was a theater in Hudson, New York. I had never been there before, but the moment I stepped inside, I knew the place. It was like all the small community theaters where I first learned to put on plays. The two women who ran the place reminded me that it was almost all women directors, writers, and designers who taught me in my early years. The film began with those very warm memories. They don’t provide the characters and plots, but they are the spirit behind it all.

I know that theater well. I spent a weekend in Hudson last year to see a screening of “Ketermaya” at Stageworks, a 40,000 square foot performance space just like the Bread Factory that had been a candle-making factory at one point. For me, it symbolizes the kind of grass-roots support for the arts that defies the prevailing cultural norms of a civilization in deep decline. Kudos to Patrick Wang for making a film that recognizes the importance of such flowers that bloom in the desert.

Now 88, Frederick Wiseman has just made his 47th film, a documentary titled “Monrovia, Indiana” that like every other is in his patented cinéma vérité style. Opening today at the Film Forum in New York, it is a profile of the people living in a small, farming town that would seem to fit the Red State profile. In 2008, Barack Obama spoke of such people: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Wiseman wisely chose not to turn this into the sort of film a Michael Moore would make that would be equivalent to shooting fish in a barrel. Instead, he allows the common folk to represent themselves in Mason Lodge meetings, church services, shopping in a gun shop, making small talk in restaurants, deliberating in town council meetings, etc. You become a fly on the wall learning about people who are as remote in their own way from the lives of most of my readers as would be the Yanomami in Brazil.

Ironically, I grew up in an area not that different from Monrovia, even though the lives of others still remained a secret to me. I am referring to the Christians who owned farms in Sullivan County and who hunted deer, went to church on Sunday and drank at roadhouses. For a Jew, my world was that of shopkeepers, synagogues and ski hills.

In the press notes, Wiseman explained why he decided to make the film:

I thought a film about a small farming community in the Midwest would be a good addition to the series I have been doing on contemporary American life. Monrovia, Indiana appealed to me because of its size (1,063 residents), location (I have never shot a film in the rural Midwest) and the shared cultural and religious interests within the community. During the nine weeks of filming the residents of Monrovia were helpful, friendly and welcoming and gave me access to all aspects of daily life. Life in big American cities on the east and west coasts is regularly reported on and I was interested in learning more about life in small town America and sharing my view.

That an 88-year old filmmaker would express the need for “learning more” about this distinctly odd society we are living in should be an inspiration just not for other filmmakers but those of us interested in changing it.

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