[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/jun/04/finding-vivian-maier/]
Shortly after I wrote my last Portland Observer piece two months ago, I quite tragically lost my life partner, Stan Thornburg. (For those who are interested, I have written about Stan's passing on my blog at http://opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com/2014/05/complicated-grief.html). Among other things, my grief journey has given me occasion to reflect on the mysteries of the human soul -- and, also, on how remarkably uncurious people are about each other. So it seemed fitting, on my return to writing film criticism, to introduce you to a lovely documentary -- "Finding Vivian Maier" -- that probes those mysteries with vigorous curiosity that some have termed obsessive.
Five years ago, a young man from Chicago named John Maloof posted several hundred photos on Flickr that he had purchased in the form of undeveloped negatives at an auction. A veteran flea-market miner of discarded treasures since childhood, Maloof had an instinct that he had stumbled onto something, but cannily posed the question to the internet: "What do I do with this stuff?" The photos caused a stir, and quickly drew comparisons to important street photographers like Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and Helen Levitt.
Maloof -- who acknowledges that he is "obsessive about stuff" -- ultimately unearthed 100,000 negatives of the artist, Vivian Maier, along with a roomful of the scraps of memorabilia that she had collected over years of hoarding before she died in her 80s. Maloof missed Maier herself by a matter of months (though he stumbled onto her obituary), but he located many people who knew her, including the proprietor of a Chicago antique shop that she frequented who termed Maier "a real pain in the ass."
The documentary, which Maloof co-directed with Charlie Siskel (nephew of Gene), regards Maier with kindness, with wonder, with respect for her talent, but also for her individuality, for what she would have wanted, for what made her tick.
Who was this woman, really? Why did she take so many careful, beautifully crafted photographs, and never show her art? Did she recognize her talent? Was she lonely? Was her French accent real? Was she Vivian, Viv, Ms. Maier, or Miss Meyers?
"She was my nanny." Maier spent most of her adult life as a nanny to a string of families in Chicago's North Shore neighborhoods. The picture that emerges is inconsistent. Some of her now-adult charges describe her as playful and attentive. A certain quirkiness is evident. They remember the low-slung Rolleiflex camera that always hung around her neck. She took them on outings to the city -- but some of those outings included slums or even the stockyards. And some describe a woman who could be mercurial, or sharp, or even unkind.
Her employers worried about her. She was obsessively private, and seems to have shifted her identity slightly with each family. She demanded a lock on the door of her room and forbade any entry. One of her former charges remarks that she would never have allowed for the fame that has followed the release of her art.
Yet there is a kindness, an open-heartedness, even a capacity to connect that shines through in her photographs. The camera she used allowed her to photograph from her midsection, while she evidently maintained eye-contact with many of her subjects, and she poignantly captures their humanity. She was interested in the poor, the odd, the marginalized. Many of her subjects are people of color. Her pictures frequently inspire a rush of love.
Maier took a lot of self-portraits, and they are fascinating. They reveal a tall, somewhat awkward woman ("seven feet" says one of her former charges, before correcting herself), often wearing a long menswear coat and hat, yet also displaying a sense of style, an instinct for how to present herself. One wonders at this apparent loner's persistence in capturing arresting images that place her in the broader world.
The filmmakers don't attempt to sum Maier up, or resolve her contradictions. Instead, they attend to her. What some critics have called obsessive struck me as a quality of attention that is all too missing in the world, a sort of mindful curiosity and genuine regard.
Importantly, Maloof and many of his subjects display a willingness to reflect on (or at least to demonstrate) what their interaction with Maier's story says about them.
One of her employers seems almost to argue with Maier in the guise of arguing with the filmmakers. Another fusses a bit about her struggles to end Maier's time with their family. A friend expresses regret for having "dropped the ball" during an encounter with Maier late in her life, mindful of the family concerns that distracted her from loneliness that she might have addressed. Often you see a flicker of recognition of things missed.
The result is a film that applies a kind of reverence to reflecting on this person's life which not only honors her but, indirectly, offers some instruction on attentiveness.
Maier seems a particularly compelling mystery now, but in life she was by turns odd and ordinary, a quiet woman without money, family, or connections. Evidently she was damaged, and not well-adjusted by any conventional standard. But as the filmmakers discover, she had traveled the world, had relatives in the French Alps who still remember her, and displayed wit and a crackling intelligence. And a prodigious talent.
Maier's photographs reveal an inquisitiveness about human experience that is too often lacking in the world. And so does this lovely and remarkable film.