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With: John Maloof, Mary Ellen Mark, Phil Donahue
Written by: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel
Directed by: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 83
Date: 04/11/2014

Finding Vivian Maier (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Picture This

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

First off, there are the photographs. Even if you're an amateur shutterbug, it's clear that the photos are masterworks. As others have accurately described, they have a certain joy, pain, openness, and curiosity that should have made the photographer a star. But she died totally unknown.

One of the unique things about this documentary is that the maker himself, John Maloof, is integral to its story. The story would have been forever buried if not for him. While working on a book about the history of Chicago, Maloof went looking for old photographs. He went to an auction -- his family business was auctions and estate sales -- and bid sight unseen on a box. Inside the box were the remarkable photographs described above. (Many of the photos can be seen here or here.)

Insatiably curious, Maloof went on a hunt to find out more about the photographer, going through the things she had hoarded -- everything from bus passes and receipts, to shoes and hats -- looking for clues. He discovered that she worked as a nanny, found some of the families she had worked for, and got them to talk. (Remarkably, one of her employers was Phil Donahue!) The result is the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, which comedian Jeff Garlin helped produce.

At first, the film shows Vivian Maier as a shy, sad, reclusive type, an amazing talent who was unable or unwilling to learn how to share her work with the world. But the more people talk about her, the more disturbed her character becomes. She often refused to give out her name, and sometimes changed the spelling of it. She spoke in an accent that may have been fake. Her hoarding reached pathological heights. She psychologically abused some of the kids she looked after. She took the children for walks in order to shoot more photographs, dragging them into bad neighborhoods, and sometimes sneaking off and leaving them.

The movie has a fairly major hole. Apparently two of the boys that Maier looked after thought enough of her that when they grew up, paid for an apartment for her in her old age, and even stored all of her things for her. But Maloof and co-director Charlie Siskel -- a nephew of the late, great film critic Gene Siskel -- fail to interview these men. It's likely that they simply refused to be interviewed for the film, but the filmmakers do not state even that much.

However, Finding Vivian Maier does two things very well. First, it reminds us that it's not so easy to label or package a human being. Vivian Maier comes across as a bad person, but also as a sad, damaged, willful, amazing person. She may not be someone that I'd want to hang out with, and I wish that she hadn't been able to torture those kids, but I'm glad I learned about her.

Secondly, the movie illustrates that baffling conundrum of the difference between great works of art and an artist with a seriously flawed character. How does one affect the other, if at all? Did we enjoy the photographs more before we got to know who Maier really was? Maybe the fact that she's dead plays into the equation as well; several interviewees speculate on whether Maier would have wanted her photographs seen.

Either way, the photographs are being seen, and I think that their value, not only of a time and place, but also in their portrayal of the human mystery, is inestimable. Perhaps the main reason to see Finding Vivian Maier is to simply see this extraordinary collection of images, no matter what their creator was or wasn't.

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