3:58 PM EDT, September 12, 2013
Amid the red-carpeted premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival, continuing through the weekend, dozens of smaller pictures fight for attention. See what we can do with a camera? We're worthy of attention too. But sometimes a small picture finds a relatively large audience.
"Finding Vivian Maier" may be one such film. It's a fascinating documentary about a woman who maintained a dogged, obsessive air of secrecy regarding her own skill with a camera. Sundance Selects recently acquired the film by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel for spring 2014 distribution. Toronto grabbed the world premiere. An additional festival screening was added this week, and audiences have been enthusiastic. For "Finding Vivian Maier" other film festivals (though not Chicago's, for reasons we'll get into here) are sure to follow.
In Toronto, everyone was in line trying to get into "Gravity" and "August: Osage County." But those who took a chance on this investigation into Maier, a longtime Chicago nanny, amateur photographer and confounding riddle, came away richly rewarded.
Virtually no one in Chicago or out of it knew Maier's name while she was alive. In 2007, Maloof paid a few hundred dollars at a local auction for storage locker's worth of Maier's possessions. (Near the end of her life — she died in 2009 — Maier couldn't keep up with the payments.) The possessions included such items as hats, coats, scraps of paper and thousands of dollars, Maloof says, in uncashed income checks from the U.S. government.
More crucially, Maloof found himself the new owner of some 100,000 negatives, including 700 rolls of undeveloped color film and 2,000 rolls of black-and-white film. Maier's pictures turned out to be striking, akin to Robert Frank's "The Americans" with a touch of Weegee (skid-row portraiture, stunningly evoked) and a hint of Diane Arbus pitilessness.
She was born in 1926 in New York. Everyone who employed her in the North Shore suburbs over the years (including talk show host Phil Donahue) found her eccentric, a loner, with a loping gait — Mr. Hulot's long-lost female cousin. "Finding Vivian Maier" includes interviews with now-grown former charges of hers who speak on camera of her cruelty, her penchant for emotional and physical bullying.
But this is no smear campaign disguised as a documentary. Maier looked at the world through the top-side viewfinder of her cherished Rolleiflex and saw, often from an unnervingly intimate proximity, passers-by and down-and-outers and Gold Coast swells. She captured their strength and hauteur and pride and inner monologues on the fly. Often she dragged her employers' children down to the stockyards, where she took photograph after photograph. Her French ancestors and her own travels to France takes up a good deal of "Finding Vivian Maier." Her photographs of Chicagoans of all kinds take up a good deal too.
Why isn't "Finding Vivian Maier" playing the Chicago International Film Festival next month? Strictly a matter of timing, according to Elizabeth Brambilla of IFC Films (affiliated with Sundance Selects). Other than Toronto, she says, it's not doing the fall festival circuit because it won't open commercially until next spring. So it'll be a few months before the public gets a look at the film, financed largely by Kickstarter money with a boost from Maier aficionado Jeff Garlin.
It's too bad the filmmakers didn't make a case for getting into the film festival in the city where Maier's story unfolded. That story is now world-famous. The film, 84 minutes in length, deserves a wide audience and a decent shot at some word-of-mouth, here, most of all, in the city where Maier shot so much, so privately.
Movies on the radio: Michael joins "Filmspotting" hosts Josh Larsen and Adam Kempenaar for a Sacred Cow discussion of "2001: A Space Odyssey" and other Stanley Kubrick films, 11 p.m. Friday and midnight Saturday on WBEZ-FM (91.5). The podcast edition can be heard on filmspotting.net.
Movies on TV: Also on Friday, Michael introduces "Soylent Green," "Minority Report," "Logan's Run" and "Mad Max" on Turner Classic Movies' Friday Night Spotlight series. Go to tcm.com for the full September "Future Shock!" schedule.
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