Some human-interest stories are so remarkable that they lend themselves automatically to the documentary form, but the saga of babysitter-cum-street photographer Vivian Maier (1926-2009) -- and, by extension, real-estate agent-turned filmmaker John Maloof's posthumous discovery of Maier's work and life -- elevate that maxim to an unforeseen plateau. The events are relayed in a magnificent new documentary co-directed by Maloof and Charlie Siskel, entitled
Finding Vivian Maier. The film begins in late 2007, when Maloof placed a winning auction bid of $340.00 on a locker full of photographic negatives by an unknown Chicagoan artist. As he reviewed his findings, and then used the Internet to circulate the images en masse, a rabid following blossomed around Maier, with many viewing her candid shots of city life and instantly proclaiming her the great unsung heir to Diane Arbus. Taking a cue from this fervency, Maloof somehow began to pinpoint and buy up troves of additional Maier negatives, rolls of undeveloped stills, audio recordings and even 8mm movies that Maier shot -- until he amassed what basically amounted to an entire warehouse full of material. Then Maloof and co-director Charlie Siskel (with support from the documentary's executive producer, actor Jeff Garlin) attempted the seemingly impossible, by undertaking an exhaustive global search -- first for those who knew and interacted with the reclusive, eccentric Maier during her lifetime, then for much more elusive details concerning Maier's relatives, origins, and details concerning her psychological motivation. This takes Maloof, Siskel and their crew first to the New York City public archives, then to European villages looking for Maier's extended family, and ultimately, back to the Windy City. The co-directors set a high bar for themselves, and clear it with surprising grace. Maloof and Siskel are clearly born documentarians, and fill the frame with one masterstroke after another -- from touches as seemingly incidental as an amusing opening sequence that merely shows interviewees pausing, perplexed, as they search for appropriate adjectives to characterize Vivian, to a spellbinding third act that actually begins to solve, on-camera, many of the core enigmas of Maier's life. Therein lies the film's most prodigious achievement -- its ability to somehow X-ray the ghost of this elusive woman, and etch out a portrait not of a mystery figure per se, as much as an emotionally and psychologically damaged, perhaps even sexually traumatized loner with the eye and soul of a poet. Many impressions in the movie deliberately clash with one another -- such as its depiction of one who captured life from the sidelines, distantly and candidly, and yet (as one interviewee affirms, and as the stills illustrate), a woman who managed to forge enough of an instantaneous synchronicity with her street subjects so as to be able to parlay that connection onto photographic negatives for all of posterity. In the hands of these filmmakers, such paradoxes are not infuriating as one might expect, but tantalizing. A fascinating transition also takes place over the course of this documentary. At the outset of the film, we instinctively believe that its chief subject traveled far out of her way to bury the details of her story and her work, which is flush with the received public opinion of Maier. Yet, in the process of filming, Maloof and Siskel unearth stunning concrete evidence that, Maier: A. Knew how brilliant she was, and B. Did in fact push for her work to be seen in some quarters of the world. In other words, there may have been a soft, desperate cry within the photographer for a stab at immortality. That sense that we get helps feed into the movie's central yet undeclared sub-rosa theme: that of human transience versus permanence. As the movie flashes Maier's pictures on the screen, one-by-one, we're struck by the fleeting nature of the lives she captured, by her ability to immortalize specific moments in everyday existence with almost unearthly evocation of time and place. And yet she herself was a shadowy, evanescent figure, seemingly content to pass out of life as an unknown, which makes the existence of this film itself -- and its cross-sectioning of the artist -- terribly ironic. One interviewee remarks that Vivian would have been infuriated by the Maloof-Siskel picture, but as the movie wraps up, we aren't so sure of this -- and of course, we will never know definitively. In the interest of full disclosure: Not everything in the documentary is a success. There are a few shots that feel slightly pretentious -- as when Maloof and Siskel film one interviewee from an extreme low angle, standing a story or so above them. And while we can agree conceptually with the decision to interpolate on-camera commentary by Maloof (he is, after all, an integral component of the story), he isn't necessarily a natural on-camera personality -- at times he comes off as slightly conceited and affected. And to be clear: The film does raise perplexing questions about Maloof's own involvement that it doesn't even begin to answer. (How, for instance, did he manage to singlehandedly locate and finance the acquisitions of the additional Maier material, and convince other auction bidders to part with it? And we're told that he found the stills around 18 months before Vivian died...what happened during this period? Was there some interaction with her or resistance from her?) But in light of everything that the documentary does achieve, these omissions are fairly minor. For the most part, this is an engrossing, astonishing story, beautifully conceived and executed by the co-directors, and structured so organically by editor Aaron Wickenden that it naturally flows from one phase of Vivian's journey to another with great ease. It constitutes a formidable achievement as a motion picture, a fitting coda to Maier's bizarre life, and -- one hopes -- a key stage in an ongoing rediscovery of a vital and fresh American artist, years after her time has passed.
All Movie Guide - Nathan Southern