Finding Vivian Maier is a film on a mission, like many documentaries. The subject is one of the great undiscovered street photographers of the latter half of the last century, a nanny by trade (what we’d now call an ‘au pair’ I suppose) and an eccentric by inclination, who took hundreds of thousands of photographs over the course of her life in cities such as New York and Chicago. She made no particular effort in her life to publicise her extensive and bountiful archive of photos, but her star is rising now, posthumously, in no small part due to one of the directors of this film, John Maloof.
Maloof begins at the beginning (instead of the end, as so many films are apt to do these days) with Maloof describing how he came across a box of Vivian’s property in an auction lot. She was a compulsive hoarder of memorabilia and bric-a-brac and the box he took home, luckily for him, was full of cases of undeveloped film negatives. His fast-developing fascination with the quality of the work he found lead him down the road at the end of which was this film.
The film itself is chock full of Vivian’s black and white portraits of city life in New York, and environs beyond, from the late sixties and early seventies onwards. It is narrated by Maloof, often directly to the camera, and also features interviews with people who knew Vivian in life: former employers, one or two friends, children who were raised by her for a period of time. A thorough sense of the woman and her nature is established and developed continuously over the runtime. One of the strengths of the film is that this investigation into her character and her past never stops. New information is uncovered, new leads, insights and interviewees. This creates an engaging balance between pacing and content. If the subject interests you at all, then Finding Vivian Maier won’t bore.
The subject’s personal eccentricity assists the film makers also. Her choice to be a nanny, rather than pursue her art as a career, exposed her to a variety of upper middle class families, some of them maybe a little too well-heeled and conscious of their social standing to fully comprehend such an odd duck as Vivian Maier. Every one of them mentions her extreme need for privacy and tendency to hoard vast piles of newspapers. There are some intriguing moments of her experimenting with spot interviews and vox pops on a portable tape recorder, asking housewives their opinion of the Watergate scandal in the queue for the deli counter of some supermarket. Some of the now adult children she minded give their impressions. There’s a real striking tonal shift that comes from these particular interviews at one point which casts yet further light on Vivian’s character. I won’t spoil it, but this is one of the strongest sequences, making it stand out in the memory and flipping the script on the ‘misunderstood genius outsider’ archetype that seems to lurk behind the film’s premise.
The film making is professional and straightforward. If there’s a problem, it’s that the film is almost too conventional in its presentation, but solid execution trumps half-baked flashiness, a high-concept approach, for this reviewer. Special mention should be given for some very slick, complex editing, which is never confusing or too rapid for the eye. The sheer wealth of available documentary material can’t have hurt.
Overall, this is worth a look; if you’re a documentary buff, the woman at the heart of the piece will hopefully raise it above the crowd. The casual viewer will be intrigued also, particularly if they have a love of the arts.
Review by Rúairí Conneely
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