“A tree gives glory to God,” Walter Baker tells us in the new documentary A Rubber Band is an Unlikely Instrument, “first by being a tree.” He’s quoting the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton, who spent much of his religious life behind the walls of a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. The last time Walter went to a church–any church–was for one of his numerous side jobs as a handyman. His grip on life, we find out, is an tenuous as his relationship with God.
Matt Boyd is a young filmmaker who met Walter several years ago while walking in his Brooklyn neighborhood. Walter placed a customized rubber band between his lips, stretched it out, and began making eerie, hypnotic tones. From there, chance meetings between the two led to serious discussions about putting together a documentary.
A Rubber Band is an Unlikely Instrument documents the life of Walter, Walter’s wife Andrea, and their son Sidney. Boyd eschews the structure of mainstream documentaries with their emphasis on plot or message in favor of long shots, expressionistic camera angles and subject matter, and a soundtrack that reminds one of Jonny Greenwood’s work on There Will Be Blood. After watching it once and hating it, I watched it a second time and began to appreciate the subtleties that Boyd presents. Like a mystery, the viewer is asked to make his or her own inferences about the details of Walter’s life.
Having forgone a more stable means of income to pursue his music–even to the detriment of his family–Walter is forced to sell furniture and a stereo from their apartment to make ends meet. Although he has an electric guitar collection worth well into the thousands of dollars and owes more than $70,000 in student loans, he’ll never part with the guitars and he feels no moral obligation to pay back the loans. “We’ll let it get up to a million and then call Letterman,” he tells his wife as he picks at the strings on his guitar.
Andrea, a poet scarred by the couple’s abortion years ago, seems to choose not to work, although that is not completely clear to the viewer. And their adolescent son Sidney utters the most haunting words to come out of a child since The Shining. When Andrea asks him what he wants for lunch, he stares out of the car window and says, “I’ll tell you when I’m dead.” Neither Andrea nor Walter seems to know what to make of such a statement. Given the recent school horrors in the U.S., neither does the viewer.
On a trip to Texas to visit his parents, we discover Walter’s selfish roots perhaps lie in his father, a man who simply cannot budge an inch even when Walter offers to come home more often. “You don’t have to report in, if that’s what you think you’re doing,” Walter’s father says with a thick drawl. “If you can make it home you can, if you can’t, you can’t.” There is no expression of desire in his voice or on his face. Later, Andrea asks Walter the question that all empathetic viewers would ask. “Do you want [your dad] to say ‘I love you’?” Walter’s pained stammer is enough to give us the answer.
Boyd make excellent use of the musical dynamism between Walter and his mother. Though docile and submissive, she belts out Christian hymns with an angelic voice as Walter strums a six string. Together they produce some of the most elegant sounds in the film.
Matt Boyd’s presumably most personal work to date, though, is not without its own flaws. At over two hours and without a typical structure, the film is going to lose the interest of many viewers, especially when there is no emphasis placed on us wanting to feel anything for the main character. Walter is neither hero nor anti-hero. Like one of his expressionistic rubber band notes, Walter meanders through the city with neither direction nor purpose. Although it’s easy to feel sorry of Walter, it’s difficult to like him. His self-centeredness plagues his life. But rather than it being the product of some of sociopathy, A Rubber Band is an Unlikely Instrument documents a man who never really matured and feels lost, corned by the fatalism inherent in Merton’s tree.
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