Finding Vivian Maier

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/22/14 22:20:08

"A fascinating discovery, even with the missing pieces."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The recently-discovered photography of Vivian Maier is striking, impressive enough that even those of us with no particular expertise in what makes a good picture can look at one and recognize something special without some sort of hook. They've got one, though, and "Finding Vivian Maier" is an intriguing look at the photographer's story.

Maier did not work as a photographer; she spent most of her life as a nanny, although she always carried her Rolleiflex camera with her. She took thousands of rolls of black-and-white and color film (as well as 8mm and 16mm home movies) over the course of her life, and John Maloof bought a tub's worth after she died, needing pictures for another project. Once he realizes that he's stumbled onto something special, he seeks to learn more about Maier. That's easier in some ways than others; she was a hoarder where physical things were concerned, but just as obsessively anonymous and private in her personal life.

That tendency of Maier to hide herself behind locked doors in other people's houses presents a challenge for Maloof and his co-director Charlie Siskel: They must, inevitably, deal with not being able to answer some of the questions they present to the audience. I suspect that many projects of this sort are either abandoned our delayed a long time as the filmmakers try to find the interview, document, or other missing piece that will fit in perfectly at the end of the movie, pulling everything together. Where some parts of the story are concerned, they just don't have that, and it strikes me that it is probably much more difficult to make a movie that doesn't let the audience down as it teases blind alleys that it can't fully explore than one that builds to a startling revelation while the later will be much more appreciated. Maloof & Siskel (and editor Aaron Wickenden) seldom put the movie together in a way that leaves the audience feeling disappointed, and deserve a fair amount of credit for that accomplishment.

That's all the more impressive because the easiest way to fill in those gaps is often to have the filmmaker front and center as he tries to put the puzzle together, and these guys are very restrained where that is concerned. We certainly see and hear a fair amount of John Maloof as he details what is and is not there or builds a transition from one section of the sorry to the next, but he steadfastly refused to make the film about himself, bringing the focus back to Maier without fail. The various interview bits with the people who knew her walk a similar line; enough personality to make watching them entertaining and give some context to how they knew Maier, but enough restraint and divided focus that none ever overpower a subject who is in many ways a cipher.

It's not like the audience comes out of the movie not knowing much more than they did when they entered, either. Maloof & Siskel piece together enough of a narrative to keep the interest of the audience, with the gaps often making what is there just a bit more compelling. The use of Maier's photographs within the film is interesting, too; the fact that she came to fame posthumously means that there is no established canon, so the filmmakers are free to choose the pictures that they feel are both representative and especially beautiful rather than building the movie around famous images, which means each look at some of Maier's work does double duty. And while the filmmakers are not going out of their way to make the film instructive, a viewer is likely to pick up a thing or two about the medium.

There are gaps in the movie, and not all of them are the result of Maier's intense desire for anonymity during her life. It's not every documentary that is able to work around those gaps, though, and this does a fine job of it, with some exceptional street photography along the way.

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