Vivian Maier is a great Chicago story. And what she did for, and with, the faces, neighborhoods and character of mid-20th century Chicago deserves comparison to what Robert Frank accomplished, in a wider format, with "The Americans."
"Finding Vivian Maier" captures the bittersweet life, stealth photographic career and tantalizing riddle embodied by Maier (1926-2009), who was of French and Austrian ancestry. For much of her life Maier lived and worked as a nanny in Chicago's well-heeled northern suburbs; among her employers was TV talk show host Phil Donahue, who hired her to take care of his four kids while his career was riding high. (Donahue's interviewed for the documentary.) She kept various houses running, in succession, and frequently took her young charges on all sorts of expeditions to downtown Chicago and beyond. She took hundreds and hundreds of photographs while on those expeditions, all over the place, from the stockyards to the Gold Coast.
In the film, various, now-grown Chicagoans who spent part of their childhoods under Maier's care describe her in contradictory ways: loving, fun-loving, a loner, cruel. And always with the camera hanging from a strap around her neck. Her imposing, willowy frame and stride suggested Mr. Hulot's long-lost female cousin. She developed staggeringly few of the rolls of film she shot during her lifetime.
In 2007, when Maier was still unknown as a visual chronicler, the amateur historian and sometime real estate agent John Maloof paid $380 for a stash of 700 rolls of undeveloped color film 2,000 rolls of black and white film, along with various other effects squirreled away in a storage locker. (Maloof didn't immediately recognize what he had.) Uncashed Social Security checks, crazy amounts of decades-old paper — this was the evidence and the detritus of a first-class hoarder.
Maier, however, was also a first-class photographer about to be discovered. "Finding Vivian Maier" details that discovery, and while it fudges the matter of just how many different competing interests vie today for control of her work, and her story, what we see of Maier here is fascinating evidence that no documentary subject is ever fully knowable.
The film's two directors are Maloof, also a prominent subject in the film (to slightly unsteadying results), and Charlie Siskel, nephew of late Tribune film critic Gene Siskel. What they've made is a detective story and an appreciation of Maier's astoundingly good eye. Maloof tracks down clues regarding Maier's own shadowy childhood, spent partly in the French Alpine village of Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur. Maier was actually born in New York; Chicago became her eventual home and resting place. The work she made while on the clock as a nanny carries a touch of crime photographer Weegee, especially in her Skid Row portraits, and there's a pitiless dash of Diane Arbus in her wary but incisive regard for all sorts of faces and bodies and street scenes.
The movie does nearly everything right in its chosen, compact, 83-minute form. Nearly: There's too much Maloof, and although his buried-treasure discovery meant a great deal to the world's appreciation of an unsung artist, one wonders if "Finding Vivian Maier" wouldn't have been better served by a single directorial vision. Still, it's one of the best films of the year. After seeing its world premiere last September in Toronto, it's gratifying to have it in the city where Maier made her mark on the photographic down-low.
"Finding Vivian Maier"- 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:23
Opens: Friday at Landmark Century Centre Cinema and Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park.