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MOVIE REVIEW: Life of documentary subject Vivian Maier is beyond captivating, engrossing

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Vivian Maier self-portrait from John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s “Finding Vivian Maier.” (Credit Vivian Maier courtesy of the Maloof Collection.)

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African-American Man on Horse NYC still from John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s “Finding Vivian Maier.” (Credit Vivian Maier courtesy of the Maloof Collection.)

Finding Vivian Maier

(NR)

3 1/2 stars out of 4 stars

Every once and a while you’ll catch wind that someone unearthed a previously unknown work by a great painter or found a collection of recordings by a deceased musician and it becomes big news mostly for followers and collectors of that particular artist. Imagine going to a “Storage Wars” type of auction and blindly spending $400 for boxes of stuff you later discover contain thousands of photo negatives taken by someone no one in the global creative community has ever even heard of. Did you just buy a bunch of junk or make one of the luckiest, most potentially lucrative purchases in the history of art? For Chicago-based historian John Maloof, it was definitely the latter.

While not a photo expert by any means, Maloof knew quality work when he saw it and wasted little time in acquiring another batch of boxes purchased by another buyer at the same auction. Now in possession of nearly 100,000 negatives, home movies, audio tapes and hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film, Maloof set about the mammoth task of not only determining the importance of what he now owned but also finding out anything about the photographer, Vivian Maier.

Born in New York City but raised primarily in France, Maier eventually settled in Chicago in the early 1950s where she had a string of jobs working as a nanny and spending her off hours taking pictures on the streets. Somewhat recalling the work of Diane Arbus, Maier’s black and white images veered toward the dark and downtrodden parts of society and, like Maloof, anyone with even a fleeting understanding of photography will recognize Maier as a compositional genius and astute social commentator.

For the first half of this brilliantly efficient 83-minute documentary, co-directors Maloof and Charlie Siskel keep their focus on Maier’s work by flooding the screen with thousands of her photos, the commentaries of experts and unraveling the mystery of how such a talented person could have gone undiscovered for the entirety of her lifetime. The filmmakers stumble upon a true rarity in the art world: someone who does what they do solely for personal satisfaction with no interest in selling their creations for profit. If Maloof and Siskel are remiss in anything it is not explaining how a nanny could afford such a relatively expensive hobby.

In an effort to offer contrast and balance, the filmmakers go the distance by spending the second half of the movie interviewing the people for whom Maier worked as a nanny. It is very revealing in a number of ways and generally not flattering to Maier. Without stepping into spoiler territory, the second half more than offers up reasons why Maier might have harbored disdain for acclaim and why she could rightfully be considered a tragic, “tortured artist” type. In the history of art, there are more than a few that could fit this same description (Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemingway) but these are also people that made a concerted effort to get their work exposed and/or sold. Maier never did and that’s what makes her story so fascinating.

As human interest stories go, the life of Maier is beyond captivating and engrossing and you don’t have to be artistically inclined to get caught up in all of the details — favorable or otherwise. Even those interviewed in the film acknowledge that although Maier was deeply flawed, she had a unique talent whose sole purpose was making something without consideration of its’ eventual monetary value.

Presented in English and occasional French with English subtitles. (IFC)