Who’d have thought I’d ever sympathize with Bush supporters over Brooklynites? But that’s where I was at toward the end of this documentary about thirtysomething hipsters living in Greenpoint. Walter Baker is the film’s star, son of conservative Texans with whom he struggles to get along, and he’s like a Fred Armisen character in Portlandia dropped into the real world. He comes across as self-righteous, dippy, pretentious, unreasonably dramatic, interminably analytical, insufferably flighty; he plays his guitars and buys more of them, expensive vintage ones, even though he has tens of thousands of dollars in debt, no health insurance for his family, and no financial plan for the future, which makes his poet-wife increasingly anxious. He seems to make his living by selling off his family’s furniture and other things they own—though he can barely manage to perform a task like mailing a package—and likes to shift the blame for his problems: it’s not his fault he has outstanding student loans—it’s the bank’s! It’s not his fault this cardboard box sucks—it’s China’s! By simply attending school, the Bakers’s tweenage son seems more responsible than his parents.
So why make a documentary about them? Honestly, it beats me—Baker seems less emblematic of a time and place than just exhausting. (If these are the artists being pushed out of Brooklyn by gentrification, oh well.) But Matt Boyd has certainly made something beautiful around them anyway, an artful and thoughtful consideration its subject perhaps doesn’t deserve. Boyd is patient, observational, a director happy to sit the camera down and watch, not to hurry a point along. His attitude matches the characters’ mostly low-stress lives, and he includes plenty of interludes of guitar jamming and of Baker playing the rubberband in subway corridors. (It sounds like something between a dirty sax and a feeding-back guitar. It’s pretty cool!) The best moments in the film capture Baker’s wanderings around the North Brooklyn waterfront, which looks postapocalyptic with its rubble, ruin, and graffiti like “IMPEACH”—it was 2008! An alternate title could’ve been Keep the Waterfront Weird. Boyd had shocking access to the family and their internal dramas, but eventually you realize, of course he did: Baker is self-obsessed without being self-conscious, so of course he would hand over his and his family’s lives to a filmmaker in exchange for the attention. By the time he announces near the end that with his doctor he’s figured out he suffers from post-traumatic birthing trauma, I laughed out loud.
A Rubberband Is an Unlikely Instrument opens today at reRun in DUMBO.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart