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Finding Vivian Maier - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Finding Vivian Maier
Directing: +
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

There's no question that Vivian Maier's photography is excellent. Well, some of it anyway: if tens of thousands of negatives were found, surely some of the photos are crap. It does beg the question: would it matter who it was, if so many negatives were found posthumously of someone's work? Just by mere random chance, wouldn't it be possible to find even 1% of them to be excellent shots, and curate a gallery showing?

I'm being cynical. Part of the reason may be the moderate degree to which co-director John Maloof inserts himself into the narrative of Finding Vivian Maier. It's somewhat of a relief to find that there even is another director, Charlie Siskel, this guy never being visible onscreen at any time. Siskel also acts as producer.

But we're to understand that this movie is about the mysterious Vivian Maier and her work, yet a fair amount of screen time is given to Maloof, who is the guy who happened upon a box of old negatives at an auction while prepping a history book he was writing. Over time, he tracked down who took these pictures he found so fascinating, gathered countless more boxes of her photos and other things she hoarded, and even found people who knew her. They offer individual insights into who Maier was as a person. Maloof's process of gathering all this information sounds like it might be interesting, but it's barely a fraction as interesting as Maier herself.

When the focus is actually on Maier, Finding Vivian Maier is mesmerizing, and leaves you wanting more. One gets the sense that, honestly, finding a presentation of her work in an art gallery in Chicago or Los Angeles or New York would be a far more satisfying experience. In that case, you would get access to direct windows into Maier's work, whereas in this film, it's always filtered through the perspective of the filmmakers.

It could be argued, on the other hand, that such filters are inescapable. Maier, it turns out, was an incredibly reclusive, private person, with no apparent intent of ever showing her photos to anyone. Indeed, Maloof eventually came across bunches of undeveloped rolls of film, meaning he was the first to see countless photos Maier never saw herself, but through the view finder of her camera.

These photos span many decades, and based on those shown on screen in this film at least, she has a clear eye and an artistic voice, whether or not she realized it. Maier worked as a nanny, which allowed her to go out into the world while taking children on outings -- all the while taking pictures. And this woman got around: she even spent some months in the employ of Phil Donahue, who is interviewed briefly here. She was also a complicated, possibly mentally ill person, judging by the recollections of those who knew her, particularly the now-grown children she took care of. Some different people's recollections of her darker behaviors directly contradict each other, which only adds to her mystery.

One interview subject notes that she finds the mystery of Maier far more interesting than her work, which is perhaps a key point. Some are convinced that Maier could have been a very successful photographer in real life, but there remains the question: would her work be as captivating without the mysterious backstory of the artist?

Perhaps that's irrelevant. Perhaps even Maier's actual nature as a complicated, allegedly sometimes even abusive human being is irrelevant. Context can make or break art, and this is one hell of a compelling context. It's a fascinating story, even a little distractingly overshadowed by the guy telling it. (You can hear Maloof himself asking questions behind the camera, while he is also presented as part of the story.) Finding Vivian Maier never finds a vivid picture of who Maier actually was, but it gets about as close as possible. The movie is definitely worth a look, although her photos themselves are perhaps more so.

Vivian Maier is relatively unreachable in FINDING VIVIAN MAIER.

Overall: B+
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