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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
To the Dark Side of Black-and-White
by Donald Levit

A documentary worth watching, co-directors/-producers/-writers John Maloof (also DP) and Charlie Siskel’s Finding Vivian Maier is about what becomes an obsessive search for whatever facts about the title subject and about that woman found but not found. Of equal if unintended interest is a hundred-eighty about-face most unfair to her and what, as in Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, the search says about the right to privacy vis-à-vis the inquisitive investigators of this world.

Maier, who died more or less a pauper five years ago, went at times by false names, was close to the vest about herself and her avocation, left conflicting impressions about her origins and personality, and would have been either bemused or appalled by her posthumous public if not yet academic renown as a street photographer to rank with Arbus, Levitt, Lange and Evans.

After a childhood split between New York and an Alpine French hamlet and then sweatshop labor in the former, Maier spent forty Chicago years as a nanny and occasional caregiver. Such an occupation afforded the aloof woman employers’ roofs over her head, storage space, on-the-job and free time to take some hundred thousand mainly candid b&w stills with a box Rolleiflex and reels upon reels of color motion film, as well as proximity to the children who, along with ordinary often down-and-outers, were her subjects or models of choice.

She died obscure and alone. Her work was discovered by chance when, in need of illustrative material for a book on his neighborhood, local historian and fellow pack rat Maloof purchased at auction the contents of a storage locker on which she had been unable to continue payments. Along with her collections of memorabilia of every description and value, was the still-undeveloped wealth of film.

For reasons of time and cash, a deal of the found material remains undeveloped and of course undistributed, but, growing as obsessed with the woman and her work as she had been with her privacy, the young man has disseminated enough online and in gallery exhibitions to jump start her growing reputation.

Well and good, as, with several self-photos (not to be confused with selfies), the stills included in FVM are indeed electric.

Questionable, however, is the prying into the life of someone who clearly did not want to be revealed. Common misapprehension to the contrary, Emily Dickinson did attempt to reach out to have her verse appraised, appreciated and published; and Max Brod’s defiance of Kafka’s instructions may have been what the writer truly wanted. The filmmakers do service in uncovering Maier’s offer to a French connection to do business with her photographic art, proof if need be that she was not entirely averse to unveiling at least a part of her work though not her person. But the film also and abruptly goes far in insinuation of an ominous side to the character of this woman dead and unable to respond in self-defense.

Former employers and now-middle-aged charges testify to her paranoid insistence on absolute inviolable privacy. From some few, notably from two of those grown children who give an impression of having problems of their own, the viewer learns of the nanny’s unhealthy piling up of newspapers and stories of violence, and of claimed abuse at her hands.

Even to the name “Vivian,” there are numerous uncanny parallels to 2004 In the Realms of the Unreal consideration of late Chicago “outsider” artist Henry Darger, a more obviously inviting target for aberrant child-abuse intimations. There, however, writer-editor-producer-director Jessica Yu admirably steered clear of that quagmire. Maier’s talent, too, ought to have been left to stand on its own, speak for itself, without any unprovable besmirching of its possessor.

(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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