Movie Reviews

Oscar aftermath and ‘Finding Vivian Maier’

See a snapshot of the artist in Finding Vivian Maier, photo: © the maloof collection, ltd.

I’m on the record as detesting award competitions in the arts, though I do like the idea of merit rewarded. It’s just the concept of narrowing down a field to a handful of ostensibly excellent nominees is inescapably subjective — and frequently leaves out numerous laudable artists and works. The Kennedy Center Honors awarded to a select few for a lifetime of achievement? OK. A red-carpeted popularity contest that’s as puffed-up, padded and interminable as a Super Bowl pregame spectacular but with a few more sequins? No thanks.

Still, the Academy Awards persist.

The odds of an arcane and surreal masterwork like Upstream Color being nominated for an Oscar are slim to none. Same with an intimate low-budget interpersonal drama such as Short Term 12, which won an award at the Sundance Festival but was ignored in every category at the Academy Awards. Without the money for a big P.R. campaign, it was nada for Short Term 12 at the Big Show. The industry ads and billboards and promo screenings (some catered), as paid for by studios and distributors (and sometimes the actors, directors, and others), have an effect on the Academy voters.

If something is a little off-kilter or too intellectually challenging or lacks a deep-pocketed angel to bless it, it will generally fall through the cracks come nomination time. As for a foreign-language film getting attention beyond the foreign-language slot, forget it. Thus, The Great Beauty, an Italian release about the foibles, joys and regrets of an aging journalist-man-about-Rome, won the foreign-language category, but didn’t even get consideration in the best-picture division; I, on the other hand, thought it was the best movie I saw in 2013. When the insightful, intimate and moving effort of Stories We Tell — actress Sarah Polley’s surprising investigation into her late mother’s life — doesn’t even get nominated in the documentary category, something’s not quite right about the process.


Having seen a recent gallery exhibition of her work, I was particularly interested in catching the highly touted biographical documentary about the late street photographer, Vivian Maier. It turned out to be an enlightening and borderline sad tale well worth my time. Finding Vivian Maier introduces one of the most remarkable artists and fascinating stories to emerge in the contemporary art scene.

Maier was a socially reticent nanny — a very private and idiosyncratic single woman — who shot over 100,000 photographs during more than 40 years of her life, and only had a percentage of the negatives developed before she died in 2009. She left box after box of her prints, negatives and undeveloped film in storage. Her work included portraits of dreamers, lost souls and celebrities; offbeat self-portraits; urban vistas; and numerous amusing, poignant, or tragic images of lives in progress or regress. Maier’s prodigious output seems to have gone undiscovered until John Maloof, an amateur historian, purchased a box of negatives at a Chicago storage locker auction for $380. Developing the negatives, Maloof had irrefutable proof of Maier’s skill with a camera, which was on a par with the likes of Diane Arbus, Weegee, and Robert Frank.

Teaming up with director Charlie Siskel, Maloof pursued Maier’s personal history while sifting through her treasure trove of photos, some home-movie footage, and anecdotal voice recordings. Maloof and Siskel interviewed parents who employed her, children she watched over, her neighbors, and a few acquaintances. What they learned of Maier’s world is both eye opening and disheartening. Her photographs are revelatory and survive her. Her life was a strange one, and you can glimpse it in Finding Vivian Maier.

Finding Vivian Maier opens April 11 at Landmark Theatres’ Embarcadero Center Cinema.

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture every week on KPFK/Pacifica Radio’s David Feldman Show, and on Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast, available online at YouTube and Digidev TV. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster