Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Stretching the documentary: Matt Boyd's A RUBBERBANDis anUNLIKELY INSTRUMENT

A rubberband is indeed an unlikely instrument, and the music it plays, if what we hear in the movie of the same title is any true indication, is not much, either. But that's not the point, perhaps. The point, according to the film's main character, Brooklynite Walter Baker, is that Mr. Baker should some-how find a way to write and play the kind of music he wants, whether it is on that rubberband, which we see him doing on NYC subway platforms; on guitars, of which he has quite a collection; or maybe on a piano or church organ, such as the one we see and hear used toward this movie's end -- in an old church that Walter may now be caretaker of or has perhaps agreed to renovate for money or the use of its space.

Facts are often unclear in this 2010 documentary, directed, photographed and edited by Matt Boyd (shown below) about the Baker clan (which includes Walter's son Sidney and his mom and dad down in Texas). But the theme, characters and events seen in this strangely involving film are clear enough: how the quirky twosome, Walter and wife Andrea, manage their odd, off-the-cuff, hand-to-mouth life in a time when the middle class -- including lower-middle-class artists types, particularly in expensive urban areas such as New York City and its environs -- is fighting for even a bare and minimal life.

As TrustMovies came to the end of this involving and often surprising film, he realized that he had scribbled down a full two pages of notes (one full page, if that, is usually his max) because there was so much going on that fascinated him. Initially, it appears that the movie and its "star" (for that is pretty much what Walter Baker becomes; his wife runs a distant second, while the couple's son is barely there) are somehow involved in sound -- perhaps capturing various kinds of sound effects for film.

Of course, as this is a movie, it must be visual, too, and so we get the subways, some skywriting, and then a pile of verbal reminiscen-ces accompanied by more-or-less appropriate visuals: How the two met, their bed, their relationship. "We separate for a few hours, but we've never been apart for more than a day." This sounds at first sweet but along the way it curdles into something less so. They argue, and we begin to wonder: Have these two ever grown up?

Rubberband is a remarkably intimate movie -- intimate in ways we rarely see. Our many questions -- simple and obvious ones like "What are these characters' names?" and "How do they earn their living?" or more complex ones such as "Who are these people?" -- are answered but slowly and often off-the-cuff so that we must pay careful attention. Walter and Andrea might have been called hip-pies, even outcasts, in an earlier time, or more recently, environ-mentalists. They are not really any of the above yet they're definitely outsiders -- in their interests, ideas, dress, even haircut.

The movie begins, it would seem, toward the end of the George W. Bush regime and continues from there. Walter's parents, down in Texas, are about to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, and Walter struggles with his issues about this and about them, their politics and their religion. But the threesome finally attends and we begin to learn something of the roots of Walter's being and history. Yet we can't necessarily play the "blame-the-parents" game.  The movie's application of detail and parsing of information, instead of rendering it reductive makes it expansive, forcing us to learn things bit by bit without being able to render judgment too quickly. (Mention is made of the parents living in the Bible Belt, but until we see a outline of a state on the family's hotel room door, we only then learn we're in Texas.)

While there, we see some of the flora and fauna (above and below) so different from what their landscape looks like in Brooklyn. When economics rears its frightful head and we learn how much money Walter still owes on his student loan (he has Andrea tear up the bill), it's a shock: "We don't have property or a retirement plan or medical," he shrugs. Around this time I figured out that Walter earns his meager living by making furniture, but his true passion is for his music -- even if, on the basis of what we hear on the rubberband in the subway or on one of his several guitars at home, it doesn't sound like much. But for him it's nearly everything.

Back in Texas for another try at connecting with his parents, Walter accompanies his mom's singing of a hymn with his guitar, and the result is something quite simple and beautiful. They talk about religious faith but reach no connection. Back in Brooklyn, Walter seems to have found a church (below) in which he can practice and/or rehearse. Is he a caretaker there?  Is he repairing the place? We don't know. In the final 20 minutes we learn that Walter has been in therapy for awhile. Oh!? Andrea, we discover, has had a miscarriage of Walter's baby, from which she has nowhere near recovered. The son, Sidney, is perhaps not her child?

In other movies, more conventional ones, all these confusing questions might prove fatal. Here they simply make it seem that we don't know these people as well as we thought (rather like life, no?). The movie and its characters keep surprising us (a mention is suddenly made of Walter's first son -- whom we no nothing about). Also often like life, the film grows more depressing and the characters more depressed, as it goes along. Think of it as a low-end Scenes from A Marriage (or perhaps, due to the apparently unachieveable hopes and dreams here, Scenes from a Mirage).

Stylistically, Mr. Boyd films in segments separated by fades-to-black. His camera remains almost always askew, slightly to the side, so that we rarely get faces dead-on or dead-center. End title cards give us an update on these people, and there is another lovely mother-son duet during the end credits. The final shot, appropriately, offers an obscured view out the front of a car window. At two hours and sixteen minutes, Rubberband is one long movie. But I would not have missed a second of it. I won't easily forget these five people.

From Factory 25, A Rubberband Is an Unlikely Instrument opens theatrically this Friday, February 8, in its own home town at the re-Run Theater in Brooklyn. Eventually, I am sure, as with most of Factory 25's releases, it will appear on DVD and VOD.

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