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At one point in Finding Vivian Maier (2014), filmmaker John Maloof makes one of the truest statements that anyone’s ever made: “You have to draw an understanding of the individual from the information you have.” In this day and age of over-sharing, this wouldn’t seem to be a huge issue…after all, you can basically find all the personal information you’d ever need just by spending a little time browsing someone’s social media presence. At a time when waiting for your 15 minutes is passe, it seems like folks are only too eager to shout their life stories from the nearest rooftop, in the desperate hope that the right person is listening and ready to turn the spotlight in their direction.

It wasn’t always like this, however: in previous eras, folks seemed to value their privacy more than they do now and it wasn’t uncommon for public figures, much less “commoners,” to be all but anonymous. For some people, even exceptionally talented artisans, there’s nothing glorious or desirable about the white-hot scrutiny of the masses. In some cases, individuals would rather leave behind a lifetime of unseen, unappreciated art than deal with people poking into every nook and cranny of their lives. There’s more to being a public artist than just talent and intent, after all: you have to actually put yourself out there and “live” among the people, as it were.

Maloof’s Finding Vivian Maier, one of the nominees for this year’s Best Feature Documentary Oscar, tackles this subject head-on as it purports to examine the life and work of the formerly mysterious titular subject, a life-long nanny who also happened to be one of the very best street photographers around. Maloof came into contact with Maier’s work when he happened to buy a chest full of her negatives at an auction house. After examining the negatives, Maloof made a rather exciting discovery: not only was there a tremendous amount of material to pore through (upwards of hundreds of thousands of negatives) but the photographs were, for lack of a better descriptor, absolutely stunning. Perfectly composed, exquisitely lit and with a definite eye towards the “darker” side of life, Maier’s photos were real works of art. This, of course, led Maloof to the next, most logical question: just who, exactly, was Vivian Maier?

The answer to that question, such as it is, makes up the bulk of this extremely engaging documentary. As Maloof delves into Maier’s life, he discovers that she spent her life as a nanny for various families: various interviews with the people who employed her, as well as their grown children, help paint an intriguing, contradictory portrait of the secretive woman. She spoke with a French accent, yet was born in New York City. Some of her charges say that she approached all of her subjects, while others say that she shot everyone on the sly, leading to more than a few heated exchanges with her unwitting “subjects.” Vivian is described as being beloved by the children, yet each of them mentions a number of incidents that would paint her, at the very least, as casually abusive and abrasive. She took hundreds of thousands of photos, yet developed only a small handful. In every way, as Maloof (and us) will discover, Vivian Maier is an enigma, a mystery to be examined, figured out and “solved.” As he mentions, we must form our opinion based on the information about Vivian that we’re given and, as we see, there aren’t a lot of concrete facts floating around out there.

Despite a slightly rough start, Finding Vivian Maier gets gradually better, as it goes along, and ends up being quite the quiet little powerhouse by its final moments. One aspect that briefly kept me out of the movie (aside from its sometimes overly kinetic style) is actually John Maloof, the writer-director (along with Charlie Siskel, who we never see). At first, I found him to be uncomfortably aggressive and way too driven: there are times when he has more the feel of a bull in a china shop than a thoughtful commentator. As the film goes on and Maloof gets deeper into the mystery of Vivian, however, his passion for the subject begins to overtake his personality and I found my earlier reservations falling by the wayside. Call it a case of taxiing to get up to take-off speed but the film (and Maloof) find their groove at roughly the same time.

At the end of the day, however, a documentary lives or dies by its subject and Vivian Maier is a suitably fascinating one. While I’m fairly certain that progressive mental illness was responsible for many of her quirks, particularly late in life, there’s no denying that she was a helluva person and a genuine artist. The photos, themselves, are nothing short of amazing and are easily comparable to photographic greats like Annie Leibovitz or Ansel Adams: her portrait shots have a way of delving below the subject’s surface and revealing the myriad little tics that make us all such individuals, something that’s readily apparent in Leibovitz’s photography. It’s also fascinating to discover how intelligent and politically minded she was: the video footage of her interviewing various people about Nixon’s impeachment is a real revelation, as is the bit where she traces a crime from the scene all the way back to the victim’s home. In many ways, Maier was way ahead of the curve, a “citizen journalist” before the phrase even existed.

Many folks will probably have issues with Maier, the person, especially once the film begins to dig into the abusive incidents that the grown children describe. The film never picks a side, however, since everything is filled with such contradictions: we’re constantly hearing two versions of Vivian, sometimes from the same person, which only helps to drive home the notion of her as a living enigma, a reclusive, mysterious figure who lived life on her own terms. Was she misunderstood? A monster? Insane? A tortured artist? Ahead of her time? From what we’re shown/told, she may have been all of these things or none of them. The only thing we know for sure is that she managed to take hundreds of thousands of amazing photographs over the course of her lifetime.

As a lifelong writer who has the equivalent of Maier’s hundreds of thousands of negatives sitting around in the form of half-finished manuscripts, boxes of short stories and poetry, there’s definitely something about Maloof’s film that personally spoke to me. There’s a point in the film where someone remarks that Vivian did all of the hard work involving her art but none of the hard work that goes into being an actual “artist”: she didn’t try to put herself out in the world, to any great extent, which is what any successful artist needs to do. I found something terribly sad about the notion that Maier died without ever knowing the impact her art would have: who knows what difference that might have made in her life? For all of its sterling qualities as a documentary, perhaps the greatest thing that can come from Finding Vivian Maier is that it might convince similar artists to take a leap of faith: if you never try anything, you never succeed. For those of us who toil in obscurity (whether desired or not), Maloof’s film is nothing short of thought-provoking. By “finding” Vivian Maier, Maloof and Siskel might just have helped us all find ourselves.

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