Here Is the Safdie Brothers’ New York: Buttons

08/31/2011 4:00 AM |


Directed by Alex Kalman, Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie

In the Safdies’ previous features, The Pleasure of Being Robbed and Daddy Longlegs, the brothers depicted Manhattan with detail as rich as an early Law & Order episode—not just its gritty streetscapes and local “characters” but also its marginal ephemera, on which they let their cameras linger: classic New York moments with hobos, hoods and hot dog vendors. The Safdies’ mastery of these authentic-seeming asides comes from years of real-life wanderings through the city’s fringes, with eyes and ears open—and camera at the ready.

Buttons is a two-part compilation of seconds-long “found films”by the brothers and their longtime friend Alex Kalman, shot on pocket cameras over nine years of Bloomberg mayoralty. They’re the kind of arbitrarily captured moments of people-just-being-people you might stumble across on YouTube, here stitched together with brightly colored title cards (Private Idaho style). There are diners enjoying lunch and straphangers during rush hour, a man dancing on a subway platform and a letter carrier with a funky radio. There are houseflies mating and television screens flickering.

Buttons captures the commonplace—the easily unnoticed or ignored, the occasionally poetic but mostly prosaic—and filters it through the eyes of experienced filmmakers. Still, the movie feels like DVD bonus-material writ as feature presentation: an astoundingly slight portrait of Western civilization in the 21st century as seen from street level. (It’s like a more abstracted, art-house version of Life in a Day.) The directors don’t imbue their images with much insight; it’s hard not to feel like you could skip this movie and instead spend 75 minutes ambling through any urban space with an open mind and an eager eye. But maybe that’s the point—Buttons urges us to stay curious, to retain the ability to be awed and amused by the everyday.

September 2-8 at the reRun Gastropub Theater