I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger,
traveling through this world of woe
Very little happens in A Rubberband Is an Unlikely Instrument. The film’s loose, episodic narrative mostly centers on Walter Baker, a typical New York intellectual and a not remarkably talented (or well-connected) artist whose average liberal political ideals seem to be way too often used as an excuse to face real-life problems. Maybe there was a point in his life when such political beliefs and outsider eccentricity provided him with a strong sense of identity, a foundation from which to navigate through life. But life happens at a demanding pace once youth goes away. Now Walter must struggle with trying to make ends meet while living with his wife Andrea and their thirteen year old son Sidney. On top of that, bills are getting higher every year. His wife often attempts to get Walter to focus on “long term stuff.” It seems as if he truly does want to listen to her and take her concerns seriously (he does seem to care for her). Yet his monologues on the subject are anything but pragmatic; in the end he’d just rather play his guitars than have to thoroughly consider any of these issues.
Unlikeable main characters have been a trend of late (Greenberg, The Comedy), and charisma is certainly not one of Walter’s qualities. Add to that a running time of 135 minutes and A Rubberband Is an Unlikely Instrument becomes quite a challenging watch. The title references one of Walter’s artistic routines, in which he plays a rubber band on the subway. At first I believed he was busking, but it turns out to be some kind of performance art (the reasons behind his eccentric act are never thoroughly explained). The sound his custom-made instrument makes is loud and intense, resembling a cross between a trumpet and an out-of-tune saxophone. Subway bypassers hardly ever stop and don’t seem particularly impressed with this man or the camera next to him: just another New York moment.
Music plays an important role in both Walter’s life and the film’s mood, and in no place does this union become more powerful than in the film’s final scene. After a final intertitle informing the audience that Walter and Andrea have since divorced, we see Walter and his mother playing what is one of the most heartfelt and heartbreaking renditions of Wayfaring Stranger I have ever heard. The lyrics tell the tale of someone’s difficult journey through life, and the placement of this scene seems to provide a loose narrative frame as well as a bleak, anti-redemptive climax.
The mundane is oppressive. Without the glamour of literature or music, we must go through the excruciating hardships of everyday tasks without the comfort of narrative symbolism. It’s easy to imagine that Walter and Andrea — a multi-instrumentalist and a poet, respectively — once lived a bohemian lifestyle, but nowadays whatever glamour there might have been is gone. At one point, Walter verbalizes: “The weight of a loss, it never really goes away. You just carry it.” Life takes its toll; we carry our ever growing burdens and inadequately adapt to them. In one moment of deadpan humor, Walter discusses, with casual boredom, pragmatic marital and home issues with his wife while wearing a t-shirt that reads, “let this moment be forever”.
Director Matt Boyd seems to be genuinely sympathetic to Walter and tastefully refuses to explore tear-jerking moments, but we can feel their offscreen presence, especially when we see the protagonist’s troubled relationship with his parents. Whether it’s in Walter’s music writing or in the rainy melancholic images of the city landscape, a sense of gloom pervades the whole film. Much like Walter himself, A Rubberband Is an Unlikely Instrument is ambitiously flawed, and there is no other way for it to be. It is not an easy experience: whether in its subject matter, its bleakness, or its pacing, the fluid narrative doesn’t demand audience participation as much as it calls for psychological projection. Close up, we’re all terribly bland, boring and inarticulate. In a world now filled with countless indie DIY documentaries, A Rubberband Is an Unlikely Instrument manages to stand out, with a challenging structure and a careful meditation on the zeitgeist of detached ennui. The dream is gone, and yet it seems as if there was barely one to begin with.