Review: Finding Vivian Maier

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! This review contains spoilers. If you you intend to see FINDING VIVIAN MAIER, then you may may not want to read this. Watch this video instead.

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“Dark and a little not right.”

That quote comes from one of the children, now an adult, about three quarters of the way through the documentary, Finding Vivian Maier.

To me, it’s a succinct line that sums up the whole film. What started out as an invigorating portrait of a skilled street photographer ended on some dark notes that left a troubled cloud hovering over my brain.

OK, some disclosure: I see-sawed back and forth as to whether to go see this documentary or not. I have this tendency that, even if I’m interested in something, if it gets too much media play, I quickly tire of it, and often even approach disdain for it.

This started, I think, back in the late ’90s when Howard Stern incessantly promoted his movie, Private Parts. I was a casual listener of his radio show when I was doing a lot of commuting by car, driving from Philly to West Trenton, NJ, every day for my magazine job. I had wanted to see Private Parts. Then he spoke about it every, every, every day. So much so that by the time it came out, I couldn’t be bothered. I still have never seen it in it’s entirety (no great loss, I’m sure.)

This tendency of mine isn’t made better by social media. It’s VERY easy for social media to latch on to the latest shiny object so much so that it gets dulled. I think this happened here. When the Vivian Maier story first came out, I was intrigued, as we all were. Wow, what a find! What a mystery! What fantastic street images!

Then, all the media exploded. All the photography/art/creative websites I read were commenting on Viv/Vivan/Ms. Maier (inside movie joke). Even some non-creative sites started to weigh in. I’m not sure what my tipping point was but eventually I had had enough of this mystery, this woman. Enough with this coy-looking, bobbed-haired, pallid face staring back at me from every mirror (apparently) she passed. (This woman LOVED the selfie before it became hip and popular.)

So then the documentary actually comes out and I didn’t expect to waste my time or money seeing. Maybe I’d catch it months down the road on HBO or something. However, I noticed that was being shown at The Showroom Cinema in Asbury Park. This is the little art house theater where Bruce Noir was held last summer.

My birthday rolled around and when my wife asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday date night, I put my disdain aside. I thought we could go down to Asbury Park, have dinner, and see the documentary. Might be a fun evening.

That’s when the see-sawing started. First, I polled some photographer friends for their reactions. Many loved it. One called it the Maloof infomercial (John Maloof was the grad student who “discovered” Maier after buying boxes of her negatives from an auction house for $380 to help with his thesis – I have questions about this too but this isn’t the space. He’s now the owner and curator of her work.)

Also, I knew my wife wouldn’t really be into this film. I mentioned this to her several times, but she had no problem giving it a shot. (Kudos to Leslie!) Still, I was really conflicted to if I wanted to spend an hour and half with this person I was tired of seeing (Vivian Maier, not my wife!) Finally, I decided we’d go see it, and I’d view it from both a journalist and a photographer’s lens.

So, Saturday night, after a wonderful meal at nearby Brando’s Citi Cucina, we headed across Cookman Ave to The Showroom theater. I jokingly said to Leslie that we may be the only ones in the little theater. I was wrong, though, as the full 28-seat theater was filled.

The movie started and for the next 83-odd minutes, we were introduced to this enigma, wrapped in a riddle, surrounded by mystery. And, for first three quarters, I was happy we saw it. It was a modern-day mystery about who this woman was. Definitely a talented street photography who went down one career path so that she had the time and space to do something she most definitely loved. Gotta give her credit for that.

The images they populated the storytelling with are superb. As Mary Ellen Mark says in the film ““Had she made herself known, she would have been a famous photographer.”

Yes, yes she would have.

But then, the last quarter of the film started. The section that focused more on the young charges (now adults) that she nannied for. This is where the worm turned for me and the dark cloud started to form.

The picture painted is not complimentary. No one can agree on what her name should be, where she came from, where she said she came from, who she was. She was more the Keyser Söze of nannies than the Mary Poppins.

It was all disturbing to me. Frankly, I would not want her to watch my kids. I’m not being thin-skinned. But when its alleged that she force-fed one of the kids (interviewed here as an adult), well, that’s enough to throw the coaster brakes on.

In the end, here’s what I learned:

* Vivian Maier was a VERY talented street photographer.

* She amassed a great many still images and moving film work.

* She sure loved the selfie.

* She was secretive to the degree of being a liar, one that was never fully honest with anyone near her.

* Despite a French accent (one that’s debated as to if it’s real or not), she wasn’t from France but rather was born in New York.

* She, arguably, put the children she was in charge of in harm’s way just to get interesting photos (Really? You’re taking kids to the Chicago stockyards as a day trip?)

* She was a hoarder and a pack rat.

* Most troubling, the accounts of abuse (minimal or not) she allegedly inflicted on some of the children she watched.

Like I said, it’s this last one was really troubled me. I don’t care how talented someone is…if they can’t be kind to kids, then that’s it for me.

Of course, it’s hard to say if it’s true or not. On one hand, why would the people she watched want to besmirch her name? Then again, why wouldn’t they tell the truth? Still, it seemed like Vivian Maier herself didn’t tell the truth much in life.

And I keep coming back to this: If the shoe was on the other gender foot, would she be feted so like this? Or, taking the kids aspect into account, if she were a he, would he be considered a frightening, creepy dude that happened to take good street/documentary images.

Production wise, I thought the documentary had some gaps in it as well. It seemed like it could have been arranged and flowed better. I was left with a lot of questions.

Leslie shares many of my thoughts on the film. She certainly wouldn’t have seen it on her own, but she said it wasn’t a bad way to spend a Saturday night. She found the Vivian Maier story intriguing, but disturbing as well.

Like I said earlier, unfortunately the film left a dark cloud in my brain. I can’t fully celebrate her as this undiscovered artist because of some of the other stuff that has been revealed. I know no one is perfect, but I just can’t get past it.

And also because I’m still tired of hearing about her.

I actually like the website better than I like the movie.

So, that’s what I found out when I went Finding Vivian Maier.

I didn’t like what I found.

© Mark V. Krajnak | JerseyStyle Photography | All Rights Reserved 2014

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4 thoughts on “Review: Finding Vivian Maier

  1. Interesting. I was recently asked in an interview which writer I’d like to meet in person, dead or alive. Honestly, I came up with no one. I admire many writers and have been influenced by them as well. Yet the thought of meeting any in person doesn’t arouse any curiosity or attraction. I guess it’s a case of not wanting your impression of their brilliance defaced by their normalcy, or as in your case, a person’s abnormalcy. Sometimes the mystery is best left unveiled when it comes to these enigmatic creative types. The spotlight often reveals the flaws normally kept out of sight…

    • Yes, Bard, I guess there’s certainly some of that. Again, I realize we all have faults, no one is perfect. I know a lot of good shooters that I wouldn’t want to hang out with (though I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many are super cool, too.). Maybe I had my “I’m a father” lens on to tight – I just wouldn’t want her watching my kids. Her images I can appreciate.

      As usual, BC, thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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