The idealism of a free-spirited way of life clashes with the financial, and normativizing, demands of the general culture in A Rubberband Is an Unlikely Instrument. The documentary follows quirky multi-instrumentalist Walter Baker and his wife, Andrea, as they drive around New York City without a seatbelt in their old station wagon looking for old furniture to sell, spar over traumatic events (a dead infant, the Bush years), and lecture their son about decomposing corpses at the dinner table—the sort of stuff one imagines Miranda July indulges in when she’s taking a time out from filmmaking.
Unfortunately for the film, Walter and Andrea’s gleaning—for crappy furniture, for emotional reparation—is closer to symptomatic hoarding than to the Agnès Varda sort. Apart from Walter’s uncanny ability to repurpose the rubberband as a musical instrument, the couple seems more invested in retreating from capitalist imperatives through complaint than through artistic re-signification. They grow frustrated and embittered with the world and each other as the bills pile on and they see their loans quintuple due to nonpayment. Instead of utilizing failure (to conform, to pay up) as a fuel for artistic endeavors that would move them forward, in the mode of Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye in The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, their music occupies a small place of mourning in the film, where they fall deeper into their alienation and further apart from each other. Walter is able to recognize, or project, this alienation in his father, who’s unable to speak about anything other than the tangible and practical, he complains, but not in himself (he hasn’t spoken to his own older son in years, and doesn’t even know his whereabouts). Andrea, too, has just about had it with the granola lifestyle which was supposed to save them from the ruthless pettiness of the “real world” when in fact it swallows them up in it just the same.
There’s an anachronistic pleasure in watching very long takes of this couple having coffee and speak naïvely against “the system” (whether the complaint is social or intimate, it’s always someone else’s fault), one which takes us back to the video-art movement of the ’80s, where the film subjects were the filmmakers themselves. But at two hours and 15 minutes, A Rubberband Is an Unlikely Instrument grows old, aimless, and thin—as though director Matt Boyd himself, like his subjects, was too comfortable in the safe familiarity of the surface to find the place where it betrays us.