REVIEW: Finding Vivian Maier

15 09 2014

Vivian MaierAfter “Searching for Sugar Man” won the Oscar, it seems only natural that distributors would begin searching for more artist biography-cum-investigative journey documentaries to exhibit.  “Finding Vivian Maier” thus feels like the kind of kindred spirit to 2012’s Academy Award-winning doc that we could expect to ride its wake to moderate success.  While the film certainly boasts an intriguing angle on its subject, it never fully delivers on its premise.

An apples-to-apples comparison between the two films is not entirely fair, although Vivian Maier’s quiet genius can’t help but summon parallels to Rodriguez.  Maier, employed most of her life as a nanny in Chicago, surreptitiously took some of the most stunning street photography of the 20th century.  As stunning as it was, she never bothered to publish it; heck, plenty of film rolls were left undeveloped!

Documentarian John Maloof stumbled upon her work by accident and has since dedicated himself to making her work known to the world.  Maloof has mounted numerous exhibitions of her work, and now, he and Charlie Siskel have made “Finding Vivian Maier.”  Though the documentary is not without its merits, it does have the feel of an overlong informative video that you would watch on an uncomfortable, crowded bench before entering a gallery.

Maloof and Siskel spend a good chunk of the film delving into Maier’s private life, hoping to come to some resolution as to why she seemingly chose to keep her work secret.  If one of their interviewees is to be believed, “Had she chosen to make herself known, she would have been a world-famous photographer.”  It’s not a tragedy that “Finding Vivian Maier” cannot provide a grand answer to the bizarre questions its subject raises, but all the time spent on her personal life does not really inform her artistic output.

When the film just shows Maier’s photos, however, the work does speak for itself.  The way she captures life in one suspended moment is nothing short of stunning.  I just wish I could have really lost myself in them by looking for the amount of time I deem sufficient.  Though “Finding Vivian Maier” does not focus enough on the why of Maier’s work, it is still entirely possible to appreciate the what of it.  B / 2halfstars