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Mysterious photos come to life in Vivian Maier

Of course I enjoyed this movie. You'd have to be some sort of unfeeling robot-ghost who hates beauty, people and mysteries to dislike John Maloof's found art documentary Finding Vivian Maier. Now I want to appeal to you specifically to make a point of leaving your house to see it, nestled alongside your neighbors in the warm cocoon of the Wilma's dark theater. With a sweet little documentary, you might be thinking you can wait a year for Netflix. But Vivian Maier's photography is so plainly good, it appeals on such a gut level, that it causes people in the audience to gasp and mutter—and what a treat to be present to hear it. As a big-time film fan, I've witnessed an observable decline in crowd attendance, and I fret about this often. Going to the movies with strangers is basically the last thing tethering me to society, and if the phenomenon goes extinct in 10 years, I don't know what will become of me and my cursed kind.

But back to the movie at hand. Our story begins with Maloof, an earnest, ambitious frequenter of estate sales and collector of oddities who happens upon a box of Maier's undeveloped photos at an auction. Maloof recognizes the talent behind the images, and in the course of procuring more than 100,000 negatives, he begins to piece together the life of the eccentric, elusive packrat. Vivian Maier was born in 1913, in either New York City or France. (One of the film's high points involves a spirited discussion amongst people who knew her on the particulars of just how fake her French accent was.) She worked as a nanny for a variety of families in Chicago, but her pictures also include stints in New York, Los Angeles and extensive travels abroad to quaint villages in France.

click to enlarge Finding Vivian Maier, movie, missoula, montana, arts
  • “Sorry, your face broke my lens.”

It's a real shame that Maier died in 2009, before Maloof could ask her about her work or cut her in on the considerable fortune levied by the sudden new interest. What we learn of Maier comes from Maloof's tireless investigation and interviews with her friends and the families for whom she worked. All of them say Maier was an aggressively secretive person who would have hated all the exposure and attention, which brings up just one of the many questions about art and agency a film like this poses. If you're asking me, I think good art doesn't belong to just the artist and we're entitled to gawk at it after her death, but I suppose it's up for debate. Anyway, there's a particular pleasure in discovering an artist who seems to have lacked the ambition or interpersonal skills to get her work out into the public.

Of Maier, we learn she was a tremendous hoarder, that she had a morbid fascination with death and, specifically, murder, that she very likely had some mental illness and was at times straight-up mean to the children under her care. We hear from experts in the field of photography who patiently explain to us what makes her photographs good, although it's hardly necessary. Her pictures include a variety of self-portraits (which I refuse to impugn upon by calling "selfies.") She was unusually tall, she dressed funny and used a specific brand of camera that hovers mid-torso. Taken from a lower angle, her subjects are towering and able to look the photographer straight in the eye during the moment of capture. In some of the portraits you get the impression you're seeing the moment just before the subject registers what's happened to them, before they have time to feel violated, touched or angry.

Maloof directed and wrote the film along with collaborator Charlie Siskel. As Maier's sole discoverer and curator, Maloof is central to the story and handles his role in the mystery with grace and appropriate distance. At times, he brings up more questions than can possibly be answered, but isn't that often the way of things?

If you're seeing this movie on a date, Finding Vivian Maier has the potential to do you a big favor. From your date's ability to engage with you on the film's many provocative questions, you'll have a better clue where the relationship is going thereafter.

Finding Vivian Maier continues at the Wilma.

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