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Buttons and My Uncle

Miranda: Buttons

Miranda: Buttons

Last week at an ICA screening I discovered a whole new genre. Buttons, Volume 2, is a series of very short movies about everyday life by Red Bucket Films, a cooperative (or “motley crew of thinkers and doers”) that includes Josh Safdie and Alex Kalman, son of Maira Kalman, an exhibition of whose work is up at ICA through June 6. Maira Kalman’s work is part illustration, part journalism, part painting, part something else—and though I don’t believe a son’s work must be related to his parent’s, I was struck by the way they both seem to be inventing new forms.

Buttons, Red Bucket Films says, are “found films of the everyday.” Some are a minute long, some a few minutes, and each one captures some human moment on the streets of New York (or other cities): an old man sunning himself with a homemade reflector, a man dancing on a subway platform, an old couple arguing on a street corner, two children walking under an umbrella. Like haiku, these films are powerfully imagistic, and they often have some sort of small movement that registers powerfully—though the movement may be the camera’s rather than within the subject. A slow pan reveals the bottle in the pocket of the tenement painter in “Short Sips and Long Strokes,”or gradually unspools the long string of losing lottery tickets on the pavement in “I Almost Won.” The interplay between the titles and the films is one of the delights here, as is the balance between humor and pathos, sweetness and unflinchingness. I’ve never seen anything quite like these buttons, some of which you can view on Red Bucket’s website.

After Buttons, we watched a more conventional film, Mon Oncle by Jaques Tati, a French comedy from 1958 (by more conventional, I mean only that it’s in a recognizable genre). Mon Oncle, one of Maira Kalman’s favorite movies, shares this with the buttons: it drew me in with its human warmth and also chilled me with its vision of what people are and how they live. The movie follows the wonderfully hapless uncle of an adoring nine-year-old boy, a shabby, childlike man who is impervious to the attempts of his sister and brother-in-law to “civilize” him. There are a lot of dogs in this movie, and cheerful accordion music, and a searing critique of the developing suburban culture of post-war France.

It’s interesting to consider the different ways different works of art approach the problem of how to make a powerfully dark point while keeping the viewer looking. In Buttons, brevity and humor are part of what makes us want to keep watching. In Mon Oncle, it’s Tati’s incredible visual sense and his heartbreaking comic timing. Also the dogs.

In the Maira Kalman show (which also features a lot of dogs), you have to look for a while sometimes to see the darkness she hides in plain sight—as in the bright lovely blue of the sky in her depiction of the planes about to the hit the Towers.

Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World) is open at ICA through June 6. Come see it before it moves out to California!