Finding Vivian Maier (2013)


Bil’s rating (out of 5):  BBBBB

USA, 2013.  Ravine Pictures.  Screenplay by John Maloof, Charlie Siskel.  Cinematography by John Maloof.  Produced by John Maloof, Charlie Siskel.  Music by .  Film Editing by .  

Collector  took a chance on a sale of storage boxes that were once belongings of a now-deceased woman and, upon opening them at home, discovered many of them to contain thousands of photo negatives that turned out to be a treasure trove of masterpieces.  Immediately fascinated by image after image of stark, vivid portrayals of life from all over the world, mostly of human figures frequently intimate with the camera’s lens and looking directly at the photographer’s eye, Maloof became inspired to know what the story of their authorship was.  If you are impressed by a man who combs through and organizes thousands of photos (plus the many personal belongings of his eventual subject, comprising receipts, envelopes and knickknacks, countless in number and all eventually cataloged by him), you’ll be even more amazed at the story he unearths.   spent decades working as a nanny and housekeeper for various families on the east coast, successful at her job but uncomfortable with social interaction, obsessive in her need to save things (which turns out to be a tragic marker of sad reality in her later life) and a superb talent with a camera.  It appears she spent every free moment taking pictures and, given how many of her charges appear in her images, did as much when on duty.  Maloof travels everywhere he can and follows every clue he can scrounge up on this woman who could have become internationally famous had she wanted her work to be displayed while she was still active.  What he finds are a series of former employers and their children who reminisce about her odd personality, her imposing bearing, her ability to get away with intruding in on so many people’s private moments (and recording them without ever seeming like she was stealing them), and the darker aspects of her rather severe manner (which became more unstable as the years progressed).  Maier belongs in a Louise Fitzhugh novel, charismatic in her dedication to a unique perspective but possessed of enough hard edges that her conflicts with others only make her interesting instead of off-putting.  The process of her taking photos is fascinating, one finely etched portrait after another snapped and then stored away in a dark box away from prying eyes, as though her desire to avoid society was equaled by an instinct to store every moment and save it for later.  The journey to get to know Maier as a person takes Maloof from his native Chicago to New York and as far away as a tiny village in France where the enchanting subject has ties.  Everything about this masterful documentary works to zesty perfection, a joyous exploration of a creative mind that does not get bogged down in sentimentality when it moves on to harder times, instead complementing the startlingly impressive images (Maier’s pictures really are as good as everyone says they are) with biographical information, and interpreting the few personal items of information that are discovered about her through the way she saw the world.  Maloof unfairly downplays his own contribution to her discovery, overshadowing his mammoth effort to itemize her vast stores of possessions with his adoration of this captivating personality, while the interviews with those who knew her range from deeply touching and disturbing to wickedly funny.  Absolutely unforgettable, one of the most enjoyable cinematic explorations of a human life that was ever made.

Academy Award Nomination:  Best Documentary Feature

Toronto International Film Festival:  2013

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