Take a Drink: for internet pop-ups
Take a Drink: for mentions of the art world establishment
Take a Drink: whenever a photograph particularly strikes you (careful!)
Take a Drink: for each new piece of the puzzle
Take a Drink: for each colorful tableau
Do a Shot: Dog!
By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
Oscar recently pared down a list of hundreds of worthy aspirants for Best Documentary into a shortlist of 15 competitors for the final 5 nomination slots. In a year where Steve James’s Roger Ebert profile Life Itself and the supernova Edward Snowden living history Citizenfour have so thoroughly dominated conversation, it’s almost more interesting predicting who’ll fill the last three places than who’ll win.
Only in Rush Limbaugh’s wet dreams…
Finding Vivian Maier is on that shortlist, and in a less stacked year, may have even been a prime contender. A few years ago, John Maloof purchased a lot of old photographs and negatives from an estate sale to supplement a history book he was writing. He didn’t use them, but when he finally got around to looking at them he discovered images demonstrating an astonishing level of talent, confirmed by experts and laymen alike when he began putting them online. But who was this incredible, unknown talent? And why did she never share it with the world?
As you can see from the synopsis, Finding Vivian Maier begins with a hell of a real-life hook, and delivers on it beautifully. Not only does writer/director and prime investigator Maloof (a meticulous, slightly obsessive, and interesting figure in his own right) pose a series of intriguing questions, but he satisfactorily answers them all, both a feat of research and tenacity and a damn fine conclusion.
Maloof also shoots the film himself, and he’s clearly got a photographer’s eye himself, especially concerning the color and symmetry of everyday objects, and J. Ralph delivers a vibrant, vivacious score with just the right hint of wonder. For all these pleasing aesthetics, however, the real star is Vivian Maier and her photographs, which are just… stunning. Her talent for capturing the poetic essence of everyday life, the little joys and tragedies of common people, and extrapolating them into a sweeping vision of an era and a city place her unequivocally among the greats of her craft, even if it took a chance discovery after her death for the world to realize that.
As Maloof uncovers more and more about this reclusive woman, he assembles a sometimes affecting, sometimes frightening (he doesn’t shy away from her dark side, either) portrait of a woman who never got too close to anybody, but whose rich inner life produced great art. Finding Vivian Maier becomes something larger, more beautiful as it expands, a portrait of the ties that bind us as humans across vast distances of time and territory, and the tragedy of how some slip through them, and are lost.
Here and there the style is a bit too flashy for its own good, with tweets and comments flying on screen… that sort of thing. Also striking a bit of a false note is Maloof’s repeated wondering whether Maier would be okay with this posthumous publicity. This inquiry concludes with a self-justifying leap of logic that because she once tried to have someone develop some of her film, she would be totally fine with this. It rings false, and honestly Maloof would have been better off ignoring the question altogether, because ultimately the point is moot anyway.
Finding Vivian Maier is an engrossing mystery and character study that perhaps boils down to one simple lesson- be nice to the weird, antisocial, and eccentric people you meet. You never know when you’re standing next to a genius.