Thursday, June 13, 2019

L'art pour l'humanité: A Bread Factory, Parts I and II (2018)

George Young, Trevor St. John, and Janet Hsieh in A Bread Factory, Part One (2018)

The question of the power of art is an ancient one. Confucius said, “If you do not study the Songs, you will be at a loss as to what to say.” And Plato had such a powerful view of the performing arts that he banned all poet-singers from his ideal Republic for fear their work would override people’s reason. But under the utilitarian logic of our contemporary neoliberal society, the question “What does art do?” has been reduced to a mere shadow of its storied history: “What can art do?” Writer-director Patrick Wang’s A Bread Factory (2018), four hours split right down the middle into two parts, ambitiously attempts to answer this question, not intellectually with auteur-surrogate characters spouting exposition, but performatively and cinematically, juxtaposing the contrast between bean-counting life and expansive humanist living in almost every one of his vignette-like scenes. Most audacious of all, the film doesn’t rest on its Manichean haunches; instead, it humanizes even the supposed antagonists, offering us the formal victory of art in the face of its thematic defeat.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Arthur Miller in New York and London: All My Sons and Death of a Salesman

Benjamin Walker, Tracy Letts, Annette Bening, and Hampton Fluker in All My Sons. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

All My Sons was the first play Arthur Miller had produced on Broadway, in 1947, and for me, at least, it’s the only one that works. Death of a Salesman, written two years later, makes loud proclamations about the American dream, but its argument is confused, and Miller is so careful about maintaining a vague Everyman quality for Willy Loman – choosing a symbolic name rather than an ethnic one, even though the rhythm of the lines sounds distinctly second-generation Jewish-American, and not even detailing exactly what Willy sells on those New England road trips – that the realism grows blurry. (One of the qualities Dustin Hoffman brought to the role when he played it on Broadway in 1984 was an embrace of the Jewishness Miller worked so hard to bury. He was brilliant, though the delicacy of the performance didn’t survive into the clumsy TV movie version directed by Volker Schlondorff.) Miller has big, Ibsen-like ambitions in All My Sons, which is no less than an indictment of the American way of doing business, which he pits against the values he believes were embodied in the sacrifices made by American servicemen in the Second World War. But he’s very specific about what Joe Keller does: he runs a company that manufactures key components in a variety of complicated mechanical items, and during the war he and his partner and neighbor, Steve Deever, turned out cylinder heads for bomber planes. When the process developed a flaw and a batch of the heads came out with cracks in him, the plant covered up the mistake and twenty-one pilots crashed and died. Joe put the blame on Steve, protesting that he was home sick with the flu that day and Steve acted on his own, out of fear of losing the government contract. And though in fact Joe told him exactly what to do, a jury exonerated Joe and sent Steve to prison. All My Sons is set during the twenty-four-hour period, three years later, when Steve’s daughter Ann – once the fiancée of Joe and Kate Keller’s older son, Larry, a pilot himself who went missing around the time his father came to trial – and her brother George return to the Midwestern town where Joe’s plant is now making more money than ever, and the truth is revealed.