‘Finding Vivian Maier’

The work of photographer Vivian Maier is on a fast-track to critical respect and widespread popularity as a social media sensation, but almost no one knew of it until seven years ago, and the few people who knew the artist herself were acquainted with the elusive and enigmatic woman only very minimally, very obliquely. “Finding Vivian Maier” opens with some of these people being asked to offer a one-word description of her; clearly the assignment does not come easily. After prolonged pauses of perplexed, searching consideration, each interviewee speaks: private, bold, mysterious, eccentric, paradoxical.

Photos by Vivian Maier

Maier was a willfully private person who took more than 100,000 pictures, very few of which were seen by anyone in her lifetime. Biographical research has turned-up few details of her early life. She was born in New York in 1926; lived with her mother in her native village in the French Alps in the ’30s; took up work in 1951 as a nanny and soon settled in Chicago. In her free time, or even with her wards in tow, she roamed the city with a Rolleiflex camera, taking shots of people, situations, scapes, and events. The archive of her work that has come to come to light— totally by chance—is now considered by many to be among the best street photography of the 20th century.

“Finding Vivian Maier” is a fascinating documentary that pulls us in with a charged current of discovery; even the fact that it leaves the viewer wanting more is to its advantage—it’s a tantalizing introduction to both the artist and her canon. Many of her acquaintances when she was taking some of her impactful images were the children for whom she cared. Later, when Maier was virtually destitute, some of those children took care of her, paying first for an apartment and later a nursing home, where she died at 83, in 2009, on the verge of being discovered. 

For whatever reasons a loner, at once emancipated and in service, she seemed unknowable even to her upper-middle-class employers in Chicago suburbs such as Highland Park. (Class distinctions may have played a role. Her former employers presume that so private a person would not have wanted anyone to see her photos; not one of them says that he or she ever asked Maier, with interest or encouragement, if they actually might.) Those interviewed state that she was firm but caring with their children; those children, now in late middle life, give reports of a sort of Mary Poppins with a French accent who took them on grand adventures, interspersed with one or two darker reminiscences that sharply contrast not only with the majority but with the film’s generally whimsical tone and music. 

The mystery began to unfold through the efforts of John Maloof who, with Charlie Siskel, co-directs the documentary. In 2007, he bought—for $380—a box of negatives at a Chicago auction; he knew only that it included street shots, a few of which he hoped might prove useful for a book he was writing. The auction house gave him Vivian Maier’s name but he found not one entry for her in Google. 

He later issued an appeal in Flickr; a few articles about his find appeared; and in 2011 the Chicago Cultural center mounted an exhibit, “Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer.” Obsessed with the trove he had stumbled upon and the enigmatic artist behind it, Maloof scanned more of her work, bought more of her negatives, and went in search of anyone with whom she had crossed paths. He discovered Vivian Maier, but the Internet has made her a star.

A few of the assertions in the documentary are worrisome and a bit leering. A word of admonition, perhaps from an art historian, about our tendency to mythologize artists, particularly women artists, would have offered some balancing context. And Maloof and Siskel don’t look deeply enough into what is perhaps the most incontrovertible evidence of Maier’s life—the remarkable, diverse, and revealing work itself.

Nonetheless, “Finding Vivian Maier” is, from many perspectives, a must-see film; it’s an engaging way to begin a journey and a shrewd consideration of the rapidly changing ways and means of assigning artistic value. It remains to be seen whether professional opinion eventually confers upon Vivian Maier’s work an imprimatur that places her alongside Diane Arbus, Eugene Atget, Robert Frank, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. What has already occurred—and the excitement in watching this film—is that however those considerations pan out, we’ve already been admitted to the virtual museum to judge these images for ourselves. 

The film is playing locally at Village 8 Theatres.

Also playing in local theaters…


Zac Efron in “Neighbors”

Mac (Seth Rogen) and his wife, Kelly (Rose Byrne), live peacefully with their infant on a quiet street—until a college fraternity moves in next door. Director Nicholas Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) finds laughs, if often of the gross-out variety, in the generational culture war between the young homemakers and the arrogant self-involved id of party-hardy youth. Zac Efron plays Teddy, the top frat rat, whose body, according to Mac, looks as if it were designed by gay men in a laboratory. The film seems determined to touch on the meaning of responsibility and adulthood without skimping on immature raunch.

‘Fading Gigolo’

MV5BMTQzMjU3NjY0Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTQ1NDM5MDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Written and directed by John Turturro, who also stars in it with Woody Allen, “Fading Gigolo” is a wacky, rather vulgar, sex comedy which almost certainly some viewers will find atmospheric and amusing and others contrived and distasteful. Turturro plays a florist whose hours have been cut and who needs income. Allen is his friend who arranges for him to become an unlikely, soulful, and morally conflicted male prostitute. The film careens from farcical commedia dell’arte to poignant drama and—the unevenness notwithstanding—manages to evoke good performances from both leads and a uniformly vivid supporting cast including Liev Schreiber, Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara, Vanessa Paradis, and Bob Balaban. Showing now at Baxter Theatres.

DVD of the Week…

to-catch-a-thief-kelly-grant‘To Catch a Thief’
1955, dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Now, on to someone who lived very much in the spotlight. “Grace of Monaco,” starring Nicole Kidman, opens the 2014 Cannes Festival this week, so the time is ripe for saluting “To Catch a Thief”—directed by Alfred Hitchcock and co-starring Cary Grant—the film Grace Kelly was making on The Riviera when she met her prince, making her the Serene Highness of Monaco in 1956. The Philadelphia heiress left films in the full glory of a career which, by age 27, had included leads in two other Hitchcock triumphs, “Rear Window” and “Dial M for Murder,” and a Best Actress Oscar for “The Country Wife”; and she was considered—and still is, 60 years later—one of the most beautiful women ever to appear in films.

“To Catch a Thief” is high-gloss, lavishly satisfying—and for 1955, fairly sophisticated—entertainment. This droll confection occupies a unique niche in Hitchcock’s canon, having none of the almost Gothic melodrama of “Rebecca,” the suspense of “Notorious,” the complexity of “Vertigo,” or the violent edginess of later works such as “Psycho” or “Frenzy.” With “To Catch a Thief “Hitchcock manages, as he did throughout his long and brilliant career, to seize upon the psychological and aesthetic zeitgeist of a particular moment in time and create a film at once popularly pleasing and teasingly provocative. 

Grant plays reformed cat burglar John Robie, and Kelly is Francie Stevens, a headstrong American heiress. The production values are stunning, and the top-drawer supporting cast is led by the superb Jessie Royce Landis as Francie’s raucous, new-money mother who worries that her daughter may have become just a shade too gentrified (“Yes, I sent her to finishing school…I think they may have finished her”).

It’s a sumptuous visual treat. Cinematographer Robert Burks won the Oscar; the film was also nominated for art direction and costume design. With its saturated Vista Vision/Technicolor palette of Riviera colors, mountains plunging vertiginously into the Mediterranean, Grace Kelly at her most ravishing, and Grant—sun-bronzed and suave as ever—in his wryly witty prime, “To Catch a Thief” not only embodies the apex of 1950s cinematic glamor, it defines it.

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Hadley Hury
Hadley Hury is the author of a novel and a collection of short stories. Recently he has concentrated on poetry, and his work has been published in more than a dozen magazines, journals, and reviews. He is a former teacher and senior executive for nonprofits focusing on the environment and women’s health. For 10 years he was film critic for The Memphis Flyer; he was also associate professor in film history at the University of Memphis and guest lecturer in film at Rhodes College and Memphis College of Art.

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