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Movie review: 'Finding Vivian Maier' a search without answers

Finding Vivian Maier


When a young historian bought a box of undeveloped negatives at an auction, he hardly knew what he was in for. It turns out that he unearthed the work of a yet-to-be-discovered street photographer, Vivian Maier. Fascinated by her stunning work, John Maloof then dedicated the next several years of his life to finding out who this woman was, where she came from and why her thousands upon thousands of photos were never developed or even otherwise known about. He went on to create this documentary, Finding Vivian Maier (opening today), which chronicles his journey and that of this mysterious and complicated artist.

"Finding Vivian Maier."
Photo courtesy of Sundance Selects, 2014. Used with permission.

The first half of the film is a mystery unraveled. Maloof talks about Maier, and her work, with great reverence and he slowly reveals to us his findings. At first he is simply intrigued by not only the imagery, but that fact that it was the work of a person who seemingly never intended to have her work shown. Why take thousands of photos to just stuff the negatives in a box? Adding to the enigma, there was little public record about Vivian, with Maloof only knowing her name by coming across a few mailing labels buried deep within her photo boxes.

As far as art goes, you take Maloof's - and others' - word for it. Everyone he encounters in the film seems to concur that Maier's work is spectacular, even if many art galleries and museums turn him down when he requests her work be included in their institutions. He argues - successfully - that she should be given actual acknowledgement from the art community, but even without it, she should be considered one of the great street artists of the past half-century.

Once we find out about Vivian's relevance in the art world, the film becomes increasingly less interesting. Maier was also a nanny, and Maloof tracks down and interviews several who knew her, had her under employ, or were nannied by her. We learn in fragments, through the vignettes of these people, about her personality and her dark side, with one person even claiming that Maier physically abused her as a child. She was a recluse who didn't feel comfortable in her own skin, making her much more familiar as a cliched "struggling, suffering artist" existing well before their time.

As it turns out, it seems that Maloof finds this story much more compelling than I did. Sure, it was pure...luck? come across her work, but once it got into the details of her sordid past, the film actually revealed very little. Having several people refer to her as eccentric, as a loner and a drifter, and as always having a camera around her neck, gives us little insight into who this person was. With that goal - finding out who Vivian Maier was - being the central purpose of the film, it was inconclusive at best, and a failure at worst.

Still, Finding Vivian Maier does enlighten the viewer as to who this important person was, even if the filmmaker tries in vain to elevate her to legendary status.

Genre: Documentary

Run Time: 1 hours, 23 minutes, Not Rated

Directed by John Maloof, Charlie Siskel

Opens locally on Friday, May 2, 2014 (check for show times).

Be sure to watch Tom Santilli on TV! Check your local listings for “Movie Show Plus” for Tom’s weekly movie review segment, airing at 10:30 p.m. EST every Sunday, on MYTV20 in Detroit.

How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"

  • 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
  • 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
  • 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
  • 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
  • 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time
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