Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Movie Review: Finding Vivian Maier

Finding Vivian Maier
Directed by: John Maloof & Charlie Siskel.
Written by: John Maloof and Charlie Siskel.

It would probably be too kind to describe Vivian Maier as “eccentric”. She worked as a nanny for most of her life, but didn’t seem to stick around in any of the jobs too long. In Finding Vivian Maier, filmmakers John Maloof and Charlie Siskel track down many of her former charges, most of whom – but not all have fond memories of Maier. There are allegations of abuse from one former charge, and everyone agrees she was at the very least strange – taking them on outings around Chicago, where you had to keep up or be left behind, freaking out over newspapers – which she kept stacked everywhere. She was fiercely private – and almost everyone who knew her admits that they didn’t really know her. She is described early in the movie as “pack rat” – but she was really a horder. But she was also a talented street photographer – who left behind thousands upon thousands of photos – many of which she never developed. She died in poverty in 2009, and co-director Maloof discovered a box of her negatives at a storage auction. He bought them, started to look through them, and thought they were good. From there, he set about trying to figure out who Vivian Maier was, and why she didn’t show her work to anyone.

One could criticize the documentary Finding Vivian Maier for a number of reasons. The first being that is Vivian Maier really wanted her work shown, than she probably would have taken steps to achieve that during her life – an there’s no real evidence that she did that. There is ample evidence that she was an immensely private person who didn’t want people going through her stuff, and didn’t like to reveal her true self to anyone – which is now precisely what Maloof is trying to do. You could also argue that the documentary itself is really a marketing tool for Maloof. He now owns most of Maier’s work – and he has complained that many in the art world still do not take her seriously (although some do – and they are seen in the movie). The more interest in Maier he drums up, the more he can sell her work for, and make a profit for himself.

Those are fair criticisms to a certain extent – but ones that in all honesty didn’t really bother me while watching the film. For one thing, Maier is now gone. She made the choice to remain private throughout her life – and that was her choice to make. But exposing her work now cannot hurt Maier – even if she didn’t want the attention while she was alive. As for Maloof trying to make money for himself – all filmmakers do to a certain extent. And I think the documentary that he co-directed is a fascinating exploration of a complex person.

The film is a mystery more than anything else. Maloof and Siskel track down as many of Maier’s former employers and the children she helped raise as he can and interviews them. What emerges is a portrait of a woman who was alone by choice – an obsessive collector and documenter of her time. She took what she thought was an undemanding job so she could pay the bills, but also allowed her the freedom to do what she really loved – which were her photos. Those photos are mainly beautiful black and white portraits of people she met on the street – often the poor, who she shoots with dignity and respect. The photos are haunting in many ways, because they capture the full spectrum of life in and around Chicago (where most of the photos were taken) during her lifetime.

The interview subjects cannot agree on much when it comes to Maier – not even what she preferred to be called. Some look back with fondness at her eccentricity, some with pity when they find out how her life ended – in poverty and alone. It’s clear that Maier was afflicted with some sort of mental illness – but since she never sought treatment for it, we’ll probably never know what it was.

One of the questions that ran through the documentary – stated by Maloof and many others during its runtime is “Why?”. Why did she take all these pictures and yet never show them to anyone? She obviously had passion and talent, yet she didn’t try to get any recognition. To me the documentary pretty much answers that question, even if Maloof doesn’t quite think so. Part of it, I think, is that to some people getting fame, money and recognition for their work just isn’t very important – it’s doing the work that matters most to them – and Maier was able to do that. Her mental illness probably played a role in it as well. She obviously had an obsessive personality – her hording shows that – and she may well have not been able to stop herself from taking photos even if she wanted to. It was something she “had” to do – and so she did it.

Finding Vivian Maier is a fascinating, though necessarily incomplete, portrait of a woman who had the soul of artist even if she didn’t pursue her art professionally. There will always be mysteries about who Vivian Maier was, why she did what she did, and what it all meant to her. That’s because that’s the way she wanted it. What she left behind are her pictures – that are somehow enhanced by not knowing everything about her. They raise even more questions about her.

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