Reviews - Specialty Releases


Film Review: Finding Vivian Maier

Completely captivating doc about the most undiscovered of real artists, with a fascinatingly dark backstory as well.

March 28, 2014

-By David Noh


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1397088-Finding_Vivian_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

Every forager—flea market aficionado, Ebay trawler, thrift shop devotee—dreams of finding that rare treasure, but John Maloof really hit the jackpot when he bought a box of photographic negatives at auction for $380. He discovered that they produced photos of singular quality—most of them street candids, all of them taken by an unknown woman named Vivian Maier. He acquired more of her work as well as her copious possessions, for she was an inveterate hoarder, and set about finding out who she was.

Maloof, with co-director Charlie Siskel, has turned his search into this most intriguing of documentaries, training his camera upon himself as well as some of the 100,000-plus images of Maier's work that he possesses. Without exception, they are exceptional, be they of scruffy Everymen on the street, homeless bums, glowing storefronts or, especially, quiet radiant shots of children, fully capturing their innocence. Why Maier obsessively took these pictures with her ever-present Rolleiflex, and why she never showed them to anyone else all her life, is a major mystery.

Also mysterious is the woman herself. Doggedly using telephone books and census reports, Maloof travels to places like Chicago and even a village in the French Alps to uncover her true identity. Maier was a nanny and maid for most of her life, and many of her employers, including a surprised Phil Donahue, are interviewed, revealing a highly secretive woman who compulsively collected newspapers with an especial bent toward violent and grotesque stories. She turned every one of her living spaces into an overstuffed hoarder's paradise.

Eminences like Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark compare Maier to Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Lisette Model, but despite such accolades, the art establishment, according to Maloof, has been slow to truly recognize her worth—in light of its quality, a statement on the warped insularity of that world. The public, however, knows no such reservations, as the photos have by now been internationally exhibited to rapturous crowd acclaim. There's no denying a good amount of self-interest here, since Maloof happens to be the chief executor of her output. Happily, he's also an ingratiatingly curious geek with an inviting presence as he narrates his Maier-induced peregrinations: a kind of weird Mary Poppins, Maier dragged her young charges along with her on her photographic rounds of unseemly neighborhoods.

Smoothly shot and skillfully edited by Aaron Wickenden, the movie is a highly satisfactory detective story, which even possesses a dramatically dark denouement. I won't spoil it for the reader, but suffice it to say that certain unsettling images of kids proffer clear evidence of a highly disturbing side to Maier, with her weirdly Teutonic walk and, at times, overbearing nature. Despite this, those who knew her grant her not only her artistic talent, but also a certain admiration and real affection. However lonely and marginalized her life may have seemed, it is unquestionable that she lived it solely on her own terms, and her peripatetic livelihood made it possible for her to pursue her passion, bed and board taken care for by her employers. She figured out, early on, how to exist as an artist—if only for herself—something anyone trapped in a dreary nine-to-five might well envy.


Film Review: Finding Vivian Maier

Completely captivating doc about the most undiscovered of real artists, with a fascinatingly dark backstory as well.

March 28, 2014

-By David Noh


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1397088-Finding_Vivian_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

Every forager—flea market aficionado, Ebay trawler, thrift shop devotee—dreams of finding that rare treasure, but John Maloof really hit the jackpot when he bought a box of photographic negatives at auction for $380. He discovered that they produced photos of singular quality—most of them street candids, all of them taken by an unknown woman named Vivian Maier. He acquired more of her work as well as her copious possessions, for she was an inveterate hoarder, and set about finding out who she was.

Maloof, with co-director Charlie Siskel, has turned his search into this most intriguing of documentaries, training his camera upon himself as well as some of the 100,000-plus images of Maier's work that he possesses. Without exception, they are exceptional, be they of scruffy Everymen on the street, homeless bums, glowing storefronts or, especially, quiet radiant shots of children, fully capturing their innocence. Why Maier obsessively took these pictures with her ever-present Rolleiflex, and why she never showed them to anyone else all her life, is a major mystery.

Also mysterious is the woman herself. Doggedly using telephone books and census reports, Maloof travels to places like Chicago and even a village in the French Alps to uncover her true identity. Maier was a nanny and maid for most of her life, and many of her employers, including a surprised Phil Donahue, are interviewed, revealing a highly secretive woman who compulsively collected newspapers with an especial bent toward violent and grotesque stories. She turned every one of her living spaces into an overstuffed hoarder's paradise.

Eminences like Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark compare Maier to Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Lisette Model, but despite such accolades, the art establishment, according to Maloof, has been slow to truly recognize her worth—in light of its quality, a statement on the warped insularity of that world. The public, however, knows no such reservations, as the photos have by now been internationally exhibited to rapturous crowd acclaim. There's no denying a good amount of self-interest here, since Maloof happens to be the chief executor of her output. Happily, he's also an ingratiatingly curious geek with an inviting presence as he narrates his Maier-induced peregrinations: a kind of weird Mary Poppins, Maier dragged her young charges along with her on her photographic rounds of unseemly neighborhoods.

Smoothly shot and skillfully edited by Aaron Wickenden, the movie is a highly satisfactory detective story, which even possesses a dramatically dark denouement. I won't spoil it for the reader, but suffice it to say that certain unsettling images of kids proffer clear evidence of a highly disturbing side to Maier, with her weirdly Teutonic walk and, at times, overbearing nature. Despite this, those who knew her grant her not only her artistic talent, but also a certain admiration and real affection. However lonely and marginalized her life may have seemed, it is unquestionable that she lived it solely on her own terms, and her peripatetic livelihood made it possible for her to pursue her passion, bed and board taken care for by her employers. She figured out, early on, how to exist as an artist—if only for herself—something anyone trapped in a dreary nine-to-five might well envy.
Post a Comment
Asterisk (*) is a required field.
* Author: 
Rate This Article: (1=Bad, 5=Perfect)

*Comment:
 

More Specialty Releases

Momo
Film Review: Letter to Momo

Literally beset by goblins, this strained animated effort should have concentrated on the human elements of its story rather than the supernatural. More »

A Master Builder
Film Review: A Master Builder

A personal project which should have stayed personal, this turgid yet flat Ibsen adaptation is third-time unlucky for Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. More »

Fanny
Film Review: Fanny

"Classic" is a word all too casually bandied about, but for Daniel Auteuil's screen adaptation of this beloved French trilogy it is completely apropos. More »

Alive Inside
Film Review: Alive Inside

Incredibly moving and powerful documentary about combatting Alzheimer's with music. Without the use of a single CGI effect, you see literal miracles happening here. More »

ADVERTISEMENT



REVIEWS

Sex Tape review
Film Review: Sex Tape

Couple's homemade porn circulates on the web in an R-rated comedy that wastes the talents of its stars. More »

The Purge: Anarchy
Film Review: The Purge: Anarchy

A modest but noticeable improvement on its predecessor, The Purge: Anarchy offers a more effective—if still far from ideal—realization of the series' killer premise. More »

Player for the Film Journal International website.


ADVERTISEMENT



INDUSTRY GUIDES

» Blue Sheets
FJI's guide to upcoming movie releases, including films in production and development. Check back weekly for the latest additions.

» Distribution Guide
» Equipment Guide
» Exhibition Guide

ORDER A PRINT SUBSCRIPTION

Film Journal International

Subscribe to the monthly print edition of Film Journal International and get the full visual impact of this valuable resource for the cinema business.

» Click Here

SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES

Learn how to promote your company at the Film Expo Group events: ShowEast, CineEurope, and CineAsia.

» Click Here