John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s Finding Vivian Maier belongs to a trend of documentaries on mystery-shrouded outsider artists that sometimes say more about our need to make the unknown known than anything about the subjects themselves. Vivien Maier — a street-snappin’, newspaper-hoarding nanny from Chicago — is essentially a kindred spirit to the atonal-folk warbler of Jandek on Corwood, the phantom tile-maker of Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles and the reclusive, fantasy-painting janitor of In the Realms of the Unreal. As with those films, Finding Vivian Maier is driven by a genuinely consuming curiosity, taking delight in excavating hitherto unavailable information about a creative enigma whom, perhaps, would rather remain that way.
Given the bounty and quality of his find — photos and negatives numbering hundreds and thousands — it’s hard to fault Maloof for wanting to tell the world. His appearance as a subject himself can be ethically irksome, especially since he clearly has a bone to pick with institutions like MOMA, but seeing Maier’s work, which can hold its own alongside street photography giants like Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson in its masterful capacity to seize the uncanniness of the human condition, is enough to erase any minor reservations. And the sleuthing is enthralling: on top of tracking down the families whom Maier nannied for (they all agree: she was an intensely private eccentric), Maloof’s sifting of other stuff left behind — 8mm films, receipts, letters — reveals fascinating stories-within-stories which help give shape to, if not completely define, this social misfit.
‘Finding Vivian Maier’ movie times